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A large cut to legal-aid funding from Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government will leave some of the province’s most vulnerable and impoverished people without proper representation in court, lawyers warn, while also slashing Legal Aid Ontario’s budget for refugee and immigration cases by two-thirds.

Legal aid and refugee lawyers, as well as the head of the Law Society of Ontario, urged the government to reconsider and warned the cuts will mean more courtroom delays and a lack of legal help for people fleeing oppressive regimes, fighting for the custody of their kids or facing other court proceedings.

“It’s just straight-out catastrophic," said legal-aid lawyer Dana Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Society of United Professionals, the union representing 350 Legal Aid Ontario lawyers.

Malcolm Mercer, the treasurer of the Law Society of Ontario and a veteran litigator with Bay Street firm McCarthy Tétrault LLP, said in a statement that he would try to persuade the government to reverse course: "This major reduction in such a short period of time will cause increased court delays and threatens to seriously disrupt the administration of justice.”

Premier Doug Ford’s first provincial budget, unveiled on Thursday with the slogan “Protecting What Matters Most,” cuts next year’s allocation for Legal Aid Ontario by $133-million or about 30 per cent, the agency says. The provincial budget itself explicitly mentions only that it would eventually cut $164-million a year out of legal aid’s annual funding, starting in 2021-22.

The chief executive of Legal Aid Ontario, David Field, says the provincial government also told his agency on Thursday that it can no longer spend any Ontario money on refugee or immigration cases. It’s the latest move in a feud between Queen’s Park and Ottawa over the issue, which has seen Ontario demand that the federal government pay the full cost of providing legal aid to refugee claimants.

Mr. Field says the move will leave his agency with just $13-million to $16-million provided by Ottawa to cover $45-million in costs for refugee cases, which have increased in recent years as more asylum-seekers crossed the U.S.-Canada border.

For its other duties – which range from staffing bail hearings with duty counsel to contracting lawyers for criminal, family and other cases – Legal Aid Ontario is now grappling with how to do more with less. Mr. Field would not speculate on whether layoffs would result: “We’re just trying to digest and trying to come up with some options on how we are going to live within this envelope."

In a letter to Mr. Field dated April 12 and obtained by The Globe and Mail, Caroline Mulroney, Ontario’s Attorney-General, repeated her calls for the federal government to fund services for refugees, saying this could add $28-million to Legal Aid Ontario’s budget. (There was no indication from Ottawa on Friday that any new money was coming.)

Ms. Mulroney says the budget cuts come as Legal Aid, having seen its budget rise over the past six years, now serves 10 per cent fewer clients. She also points to what she calls an “alarming” report from last year by the province’s Auditor-General, which said the agency needed better financial controls and noted one lawyer wrongly billed the agency $150,000.

She said that in the meantime, services can be “modernized” within the existing funding: “I recognize that some lawyers may not welcome comprehensive reform and renewed accountability at LAO. However, as we work to modernize LAO, I would remind you that there are two stakeholders that must always be front-of-mind: the clients LAO serves and the taxpayers who pay the bills.”

Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli said the changes were about modernizing the court system.

“We need to obviously make sure … that legal aid is sustainable and available,” he said in an interview.

Federal Liberal Finance Minister Bill Morneau addressed the issue in a Twitter post on Friday: “Last month, Ontario’s Conservative government asked us to increase funding to legal aid in the province, because they know that legal aid helps protect Ontario’s most vulnerable. Yesterday, they choose to cut legal aid funding by 30% anyway.”

With files from Laura Stone

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