Skip to main content

Cuts to legal-aid funding imposed by the Doug Ford government in Ontario will lead to delays and other disruptions of refugee hearings, says the tribunal that adjudicates asylum claims in Canada.

The Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) has issued a notice saying the 30-per-cent cut in funding announced in April to Legal Aid Ontario will affect the board’s operations due to an expected rise in the number of refugee claimants who don’t have lawyers.

“The IRB expects these impacts will include longer hearings, more postponements and adjournments and more missed deadlines on the part of unrepresented individuals,” the notice states.

Story continues below advertisement

The Ontario Progressive Conservative government announced the funding reduction as part of a series of cost-cutting measures in its spring budget. The legal-aid cuts included an elimination of funding for refugee- and immigration-law services.

Refugee lawyers have denounced the move, calling it a “horrific” reduction in services that will hurt an already vulnerable population.

Maureen Silcoff, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers and former member of the IRB, said upwards of 70 per cent of refugee claimants in Ontario use legal aid to help with their asylum requests. This means the impacts will be widely felt – and not just by the refugees themselves.

“Not having counsel doesn’t help anyone in the system. It doesn’t help the IRB, it doesn’t help the Federal Court, it doesn’t help the Department of Justice counsel who are often on the other sides defending decisions that have been made.”

Hearings that once took two to three hours will take twice as long, she estimates. Also, refugees are likely to be unsure of what evidence to provide and which arguments to present, which could, in turn, place IRB members in the difficult position of making refugee decisions with limited information, Silcoff added.

“The cost of wrong decisions is just too high. No one wants to be responsible for making a decision that put someone on a course of deportation back to facing harm.”

The IRB says it will not be able to fully mitigate the effects of the cuts but the agency is taking steps to help unrepresented migrants understand Canada’s refugee-determination processes.

Story continues below advertisement

These steps include being more flexible with timelines for certain cases; increasing the number of orientation sessions in Toronto to help refugee claimants prepare for their hearings; as well as expanding information available online and by telephone to asylum-seekers in Canada.

“The IRB will continue to monitor the impacts of these changes to (Legal Aid Ontario) funding. It is sensitive to the unforeseen challenges facing unrepresented individuals and wishes to reassure those impacted that the board is prepared to take further action as required to ensure fair proceedings,” the board’s notice says.

The Immigration and Refugee Board has already been coping with significant case backlogs, thanks to an influx of refugee claimants to Canada over the last two years.

In a report earlier this year, federal auditor general Sylvain Ricard found Canada’s refugee system is not able to respond quickly to surges in asylum claims, which has led to a two-year backlog of claims.

The federal Liberals have been eager to criticize the Ontario Tories since Doug Ford became premier a year ago.

A spokesperson for federal Justice Minister David Lametti’s office said he is “deeply disappointed” with the Ford government’s sweeping cuts – reductions that “will only punish those who are seeking safety in Canada.”

Story continues below advertisement

The provincial government says services for immigrants and refugees are federal responsibilities that the province “can no longer afford to subsidize.”

A spokesman for Ontario’s attorney general Doug Downey said funding Ontario has been receiving to provide legal-aid services has been unpredictable and has not kept pace with demand.

That’s why Ontario is calling on Ottawa to pony up more money for refugee legal aid.

“We are simply asking the federal government to do what’s right, and commit to providing newcomers with appropriate and stable funding for immigration and refugee legal-aid services,” said Downey’s spokesman, Brian Gray.

In a letter to Legal Aid Ontario in April, Downey’s predecessor Caroline Mulroney said that funding the refugee system is the federal government’s responsibility. The federal government says funding legal aid is a provincial duty.

Lametti’s press secretary Rachel Rappaport noted the department has increased federal spending on immigration and legal-aid services, including a $27.7-million commitment in this year’s federal budget, and a further $28.2 million committed in 2020 and 2021.

Story continues below advertisement

But the Canadian Refugee Lawyers Association wants Ottawa to step in and fill the gap created by the Ontario legal aid cuts, if only temporarily.

Silcoff pointed to the $1.2 billion over five years Ottawa has committed to immigration in its 2019 federal budget, a portion of which is aimed at speeding up the processing of asylum claims. This spending could be undone if something is not done soon to address this issue, she said.

“There’s an easy solution. All the federal government has to do is offer $15 million and the system would operate just as it had before ... to be pro-active to ensure that the historic investment that has been made in refugee processing works well.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter
To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies