I'm proud to say that the Thunder Bay Law Association (TBLA) is standing up for access to justice. See this great letter written by the TBLA to Premier Doug Ford and Attorney General Doug Downey asking for the cuts to Legal Aid to be reversed:
July 3, 2019
Premier Doug Ford
Attorney General Doug Downey
RE: Extreme Cuts to Legal Aid Ontario
I am writing to you on behalf of the Thunder Bay Law Association and our 294 member lawyers, who represent clients in the City of Thunder Bay and throughout our vast district. We are reaching out to you, to express how the extraordinarily deep cuts to Legal Aid made by this government will effect front line legal services and access to justice in Northwestern Ontario.
The Thunder Bay District is 103,719.51 square kilometres in size (almost 10% of Ontario's total land mass) and according to the 2016 Census, is home to 146,048 people. It includes numerous First Nations Reserves, many of which are only accessibly by air. About 15,075 people in Thunder Bay (12.7% of the city's population) identify as Indigenous. This is substantially higher than the 2.8% provincial average. Census data (2016) also indicated that 80% of Indigenous persons on reserves have a median income below the poverty line. These are just some of the vulnerable clients that we serve.
Legal Aid has a long history of making justice accessible to low-income people including the most marginalized in our communities. This population cannot afford to hire a private lawyer. This is particularly true of those on a fixed income, who live outside the city and may need to travel to Thunder Bay to access legal assistance. Many Northwestern Ontario residents are highly reliant on Legal Aid programs, clinics, staff lawyers and certificates to meet their legal needs. Without a properly funded Legal Aid system, the private bar cannot afford to accept and represent low income clients. Without proper funding, clinics cannot continue to deliver the vital services that they provide in income maintenance and housing.
Thunder Bay is the home of one Community Legal Clinic (Kinna-aweya) which provides poverty law services largely related to income maintenance and eviction prevention. They literally keep people off the streets. They ensure that members of our community who live in poverty can still afford to keep a roof over their head and put food on their table. This clinic has two satellite offices in Geraldton (275 kms Northeast of Thunder Bay) and in Marathon (300 kms East of Thunder Bay). Community Legal Clinics operate on shoe-string budgets and any cuts, inevitably, impact front line services.
We have a Student Legal Aid Service Society (SLASS) clinic (Lakehead University Community Legal Services), which has local law students providing free legal services to low income individuals under the supervision of staff lawyers. They help people with Provincial and Criminal charges; represent people in Small Claims Court; give advice to workers who have been treated unfairly by employers and bring tenant rights applications for numerous issues including bedbugs, mice and mould on behalf of highly vulnerable clients including many with physical and mental disabilities. This SLASS clinic was advised last week that Legal Aid is cutting $70,00.00 from their budget this year — a cut that will most definitely impact staffing and front line services. This clinic has been providing services to small communities in the district over the last few years, but as a result of the recent funding cuts to LAO, will be discontinuing this service indefinitely. The cost of travel to these communities cannot be maintained with such a significant cut. I am advised by this office that they are also anticipating staff reductions in order to make up the $70,000 loss.
We have one Legal Aid Family Law office, which employs numerous staff lawyers. Our criminal court is staffed by Legal Aid employed Duty Counsel and our private criminal bar js heavily reliant on Legal Aid certificates.
The individuals living in Thunder Bay and the district rely greatly on all of these Legal Aid funded services, Last week Legal Aid advised that as a result of the $133,000,000.00 reduction in funding, substantial cuts will be made in the Criminal Certificate program. These include:
- Certificate lawyers can no longer bill for bail hearings on block fees.
- Bail reviews will be funded for 5 rather than 10 hours.
- Gladue submission (for Indigenous clients) will be funded for 3 rather than 5 hours.
- Funding for mental health & fitness issues will be funded for 2.5 rather than 5 hours.
- Parole hearings funded for 5 hours instead of 10.
Reductions in the Family Law & Mental Health realms include:
- No funding for certificates for variations or motions to change existing court orders for custody, access or support.
- A reduction of billable hours on Ontario Review Board hearings (35 down from 50 hours) and Consent and Capacity Board appeals (25 down from 50 hours).
The fact that Legal Aid has cut funding for all of the above will have a chilling effect on the private bar's willingness to take on Legal Aid clients. Lawyers already work at a substantially reduced rate when they accept a Legal Aid certificate, often less than half of their regular billable rate. Further capping the number of hours that lawyers can bill Legal Aid for the work that they do, will result in fewer and fewer lawyers being willing to do this work. Loss of certificates for bail hearings (a key juncture in a criminal case) may well result in few people accessing reasonable bail. Reductions to SLASS and Community Legal Clinics will have a direct impact on front-line services for our most vulnerable citizens as well.
Due to our unique geographic situation, Northwestern Ontario already struggles to serve our diverse and distant populations. At a time when access to justice and the ability of everyone to obtain quality legal assistance has become so important and topical, it is shocking that such deep cuts are being made.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action include several recommendations related to the Justice sector. These are extraordinarily important in Northwestern Ontario in light of the large percentage of Indigenous people that call this region home. Specifically, calls to action numbers 31 and 38 requires both federal AND provincial governments to provide sufficient and stable funding in relation to alleviating the extreme over-representation of Aboriginal offenders (adult and youth) in the justice system and specifically in our correctional facilities. One of the best ways to address this overrepresentation is to ensure that Indigenous clients have access to excellent legal representation via a robust certificate program and thru well-funded SLASS and Community Legal Clinic programs.
We would also like to draw to your attention that cutting Legal Aid as a cost saving initiative is entirely misguided. The argument that these cuts will save the tax payer money is utterly fallacious. Numerous studies in the U.S. and abroad have shown that for every dollar spent on Legal Aid, the government is saved four to six dollars in other areas of spending including but not limited to hospitals, addiction services, mental health services and corrections.
In light of the foregoing, we strongly urge you to rescind the overwhelming cuts to Legal Aid implemented this year and the proposed deeper cuts going forward. This government promised no loss of front-line services and no job losses would result from any government cuts. These unconscionable cuts fly in the face of that promise and are already having a devastating impact on access to justice in the North.
Thunder Bay Law Association