The Ontario government is backing down on planned cuts to legal aid after being warned they would harm the legal system, but will not reverse a 30-per-cent funding cut that took effect this year.
Ontario Attorney-General Doug Downey said Monday that after consultations with those in the legal field, the government decided not to pursue further cuts.
“There’s opportunity to expand service with current funding, and so we’ll keep current funding going forward," Mr. Downey told reporters.
The partial reversal was announced after legal aid lawyers said the cuts will mean more courtroom delays and a lack of legal help for the province’s most vulnerable. However this year’s reduction of $133-million – or 30 per cent of Legal Aid Ontario’s funding – will remain in place. The cut was supposed to rise by $31-million by 2021-22.
Ontario also blocked all legal aid funding from being used for refugee and immigration cases, arguing these areas are under federal jurisdiction. Ottawa later pledged a one-time financing of $26.8-million for immigration and refugee legal aid for 2019-20. Mr. Downey said he has been in touch with his federal counterpart on the issue, but didn’t say whether funding would continue.
Legal Aid Ontario chair Charles Harnick said the cuts have caused some issues, including trouble deploying duty counsel and job losses at legal aid clinics. But, he said, the organization was mostly able to avoid a direct impact to one-on-one client services.
Mr. Harnick said he’s “grateful” there will be no more budget cuts.
“It allows us to have the stability that we need to plan,” he said.
The retreat was applauded by the Ontario Bar Association, but others said the government needs to fully reverse its cuts.
NDP MPP Gurratan Singh, the party’s attorney-general critic, said the remaining cuts are “devastating.” Dana Fisher, local vice-president for the Society of United Professionals which represents legal aid lawyers‚ said it’s “appalling” the government isn’t reinstating the full funding.
Mr. Downey made the announcement after he introduced legislation that would make changes to more than 20 different acts, with a goal of modernizing parts of what he called an “outdated, complex” justice system.
Some of those changes, which Mr. Harnick called positive will affect Legal Aid Ontario, including allowing it to use a mix of service providers and giving the agency more autonomy over its own policies. Ms. Fisher, however, said downloading responsibilities to Legal Aid Ontario means services could be stripped.
Another change includes a “more stringent test” for certifying lawsuits as class actions.
Toronto lawyer Kirk Baert said the proposed law would make it much harder to certify class-action lawsuits – that is, to obtain a judge’s approval to go forward – because it requires that the issues common to the group that is suing far outweigh individual differences in the claims.
“Well, that eliminates most of the important class actions that have been certified for the last 25 years,” said Mr. Baert, who estimates that his firm, Koskie Minsky, has 45 to 50 class actions under way.
The proposed class actions changes follow Ontario’s changes to the Crown Liability and Proceedings Act, which took effect in July. It is now being challenged in the courts as a violation of the Canadian Constitution, with lawyers arguing that it makes it difficult or impossible to sue the Ontario government for negligence or corruption. That act is being applied retroactively, with the province attempting to use it to shut down class-action lawsuits launched in some cases years earlier.
Mr. Downey told reporters that the courts are being bogged down by class actions and individual lawsuits that do not belong before a judge. “There are a lot of things in the court system that shouldn’t necessarily be there,” he said, but “people who have meritorious cases can still move forward.”
With a report from The Canadian Press
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.