Handling immigration matters in Canada is a costly affair that often puts low-income immigrants in trouble because of the unaffordability of legal services. The Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) has been a ray of hope for several Ontario residents as it promotes access to justice throughout the province for low-income individuals. However, the province’s legal aid agency might not be able to provide the same services as it did previously. The provincial government reduced the legal aid budget by 30 percent. It means the agency will receive $133 million less this fiscal year than the $456 million it had anticipated.
This fund cutting by the Progressive Conservative Party government is being widely criticized by immigration lawyers, doctors and others in the province. It will have a negative impact on access to legal services that refugees often need. Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg. It will pose a challenge for everyone in the future.
Legal Aid Ontario’s Fund Cutting: How It Will Affect Everyone
The Government’s Take
The provincial budget that funded LAO with an amount which is 30 percent less this year has sparked controversies and debates across the province. But with this drastic cut, the government hopes to save $164 million each year starting in 2021 on legal aid. The budget stated this reduction in the amount sanctioned will help with streamlining the delivery of legal aid to promote long-term sustainability.
“The prior government spent more and more money on legal aid without achieving the results that legal aid’s clients and taxpayers expect. While some lawyers may not welcome renewed accountability at legal aid, every dollar saved is a dollar we can invest in the services that matter most to people, such as public health care and education," said Alexandra Adamo, press secretary for Ontario Attorney General Caroline Mulroney in an email.
What LAO Says?
According to David Field, CEO of Legal Aid Ontario, “The province’s move has put the organization in a challenging position………. the cut is a significant blow………… we have to look at the entire organization and how we can adapt to the new fiscal reality that we're facing.”
“The focus is going to remain on clients and making sure we’re able to provide the best quality services,” he added.
The front-line services provided by the legal aid will continue. That said, the organization is planning to implement strategies to make the most of the budget they have without compromising on the access to justice offered to low-income individuals.
This is the biggest budget cut in the Legal Aid Ontario’s history. It has led LAO to take a series of cost-cutting measures such as-
- Cutting of full-time jobs by eliminating vacant positions and voluntary exits
- Delaying implementation of IT initiatives
- Implementing a hiring freeze and a salary freeze for management
The organization is expecting to save approximately $16.6 million with these measures. Also, LAO is making changes to discretion payment and the funding provided to private criminal and family lawyers who represent low-income clients who can't afford counsel. It is a big setback for LAO staff members as well because the cost-cutting measures will result in jobs lost and wages reduced. However, the organization’s priority is to minimize this impact on staff in client-facing roles.
The Legal Professionals’ Opinion
The Ontario Bar Association has criticized the budget cut and has extended support for legal aid in a tweet stating they will continue to help legal aid services in the province for the protection of the most vulnerable. To show their objection, several Ontario immigration lawyers protested the cut by chanting ‘save legal aid’ in front of the legislature at Queen’s Park in Toronto on May 7.
Harpreet Saini, a criminal defence and immigration lawyer in Brampton said, “we stand with the community and the right to justice for the vulnerable population of the country. Everyone must have a fair chance of representation in court. And, cutting down on the agency’s budget that provides legal aid to impoverished groups is unacceptable.”
The limited budget for legal aid will leave some of Ontario’s underprivileged population without representation in court, thus keeping them from getting justice in the absence of money. This is especially troublesome for low-income groups that rely on legal aid to obtain justice such as immigrants, refugees, homeless people, domestic violence victims and the members of the LGBTQ community.
Moreover, it will create several other problems such as more courtroom delays and a lack of proper access to justice for individuals fighting for the custody of their children, people fleeing oppressive regimes or facing other court proceedings.
Sherry Aiken, an associate professor at Queen’s Law explained that specific targeting of refugee claimants and immigrants is unconscionable and this move by the Doug Ford Government will likely result in a legal challenge on these grounds.
Effects on Immigrants and Refugees
Prior to this drastic cut Legal Aid Ontario provided help to eligible individuals (immigrants and refugees) based on their financial situation. The legal services provided by the agency included summary legal advice, public legal education, community legal clinics, duty counsel and legal representation. But with the implementation of the new budget, things have changed.
The cuts will majorly affect refugee claimants. The reason being the Canadian law considers a refugee claimant as a person who has fled his/her country and is asking for protection in Canada. It is not clear whether a claimant is a refugee or not until their case has been decided. Now here’s the catch. In the absence of proper legal representation in court, a refugee will fail to be recognized as a refugee because his/her claim is dependant on whether he/she has a lawyer or not.
As a result of the limited aid to LAO, the legal support to low-income refugees claiming their status will be affected. If their case is rejected because of a lack of proper legal counsel, they will be forced to return to their country which can create life-threating situations.
“When people are unrepresented, particularly vulnerable people, the system becomes much less efficient. The various processes try to accommodate people who are not familiar with legal proceedings,” said Sean Rehaag, an associate professor at the Osgoode Hall Law School, pointing towards the neglected aspects and long-term effects of legal aid cut.
The provincial government’s decision to cut down the legal aid budget is debatable. The government’s aim is to save money and spend on other areas for the betterment of society. On the other hand, the problems faced by low-income individuals because of the limited budget for legal aid services also can’t be denied. It will be wise if the provincial government reconsiders its budget and the federal government interferes to mitigate the effects of cuts. Also, other alternatives should be considered that can provide services to refugee claimants such as federally funded settlement organizations, licensed immigration lawyers and immigration consultants. They might not be able to provide representation but can help with things like filing documents and helping navigate the legal system.