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Canada Legal Aid Ontario to cut funding for bail hearings, Toronto clinic in wake of 30-per-cent budget reduction

Legal Aid Ontario says it is cutting funding for bail hearings and chopping the cash it gives to Toronto’s Parkdale legal clinic as it grapples with a 30-per-cent reduction in its budget from Queen’s Park.

The agency released details Wednesday on how it will function after Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government unveiled a $133-million cut for Legal Aid Ontario in its April budget.

With $14.5-million in cuts, several community legal clinics will see their funding squeezed. But Parkdale Community Legal Services, which has served impoverished immigrants and tenants in Toronto’s west end for decades, will lose $1-million of its $2.37-million funding.

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Other changes include having Legal Aid Ontario’s own duty counsel, instead of lawyers in private practice, take on many more bail hearings. Lawyers who do legal-aid work warn these cuts will leave vulnerable people in jail without legal representation and result in backlogged courts, where duty counsel are already overworked.

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Some critics also charge that the cuts Legal Aid has outlined for advocacy and specialty clinics, such as the Canadian Environmental Law Association, will silence voices generally critical of the PC government.

But the chairman of Legal Aid Ontario, Charles Harnick, insists the cuts are meant to prioritize front-line services for individuals who need legal help, while evening out disparities in the amount of funding offered across the province.

“Given the reductions we’ve had to make, we did them in a principled way,” said Mr. Harnick, a former attorney-general under PC premier Mike Harris appointed just weeks before the budget.

Mr. Harnick said Legal Aid officials have assured him that duty counsel can handle the added bail hearings that will come from the announced changes, and that lawyers in private practice will still be allowed to do bail hearings in complex cases.

But lawyers who handle legal aid cases in the criminal courts tell a different story.

Toronto criminal defence lawyer Alison Craig said the decision to have duty counsel perform most bail hearings would leave accused people languishing in jail: “As of today, people are going to be arrested and have no one to do their bail hearings.”

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Dana Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Society of United Professionals local that represents Legal Aid lawyers, said the cuts will have a “devastating impact" on clients. She said duty counsel are already “overworked and overburdened” and that Legal Aid Ontario had already stopped filling duty counsel vacancies months ago in anticipation of provincial cuts. Her group said that depending on the courthouse, duty counsel already handle 50 per cent to 90 per cent of bail hearings.

Johanna Macdonald, executive director of Parkdale Community Legal Services, said the drastic reduction to her budget comes as the clinic was already forced to cancel plans to move into new offices. She says once the cut is fully phased in next year, she expects she could lose as much as half of her staff of 20, and warns that the scaling back of its long history of community outreach work – advocacy for tenants’ rights, for example – will leave a void.

“This is a specific attack on part of our mandate, that is about challenging power and government, that we have seen across other sectors as well,” Ms. Macdonald said.

But Mr. Harnick also said the $1-million cut to Parkdale’s budget reflects the decline of the number of low-income people in the gentrifying west-end Toronto neighbourhood. Parkdale will now have a funding level that matches the cash given to a similar clinic in Windsor, Ont., he said.

Legal Aid Ontario released numbers showing that Legal Assistance of Windsor, with its $1.11-million budget, serves a low-income population of more than 78,000 people, while Parkdale, with its former $2.37-million budget, now has just 21,750 people in its catchment area under Statistics Canada’s low-income measure.

Jesse Robichaud, a spokesperson for Attorney-General Caroline Mulroney, dismissed concerns about the cuts, saying in the case of bail hearings that external legal aid lawyers would no longer “bump aside” duty counsel already in the courtroom.

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“There is no doubt that some lawyers and other special-interest groups will resist renewed accountability with public dollars, but it is necessary to better serve Legal Aid Ontario’s clients and the taxpayers who pay the bill,” Mr. Robichaud said in an e-mail.

Legal Aid Ontario also announced a series of other cost-cutting moves, outlined in an e-mail sent to lawyers on Wednesday: External lawyers who do conduct bail reviews will be paid for only five hours, down from the 10-hour level set in 2015. Family lawyers will no longer be allowed to bill for motions to change things such as support orders, unless domestic violence is an issue. Duty counsel and legal clinics will do such work, however, where possible.

Wednesday’s cuts come on top of a previously announced move by the province to stop funding any refugee or immigration legal aid cases, arguing that Ottawa should cover those costs. The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers said Wednesday that it wanted the federal government to suspend deportation hearings during the dispute.

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