Jennifer Leitch is a visiting professor at Osgoode Hall Law School
As is already becoming clear, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government is saying one thing, but doing another. In streamlining the budget, it runs the risk of hurting the very people that it claims to be serving – ordinary Ontarians.
A prime example of this is the refusal to provide funds to Law Help Centres. The Pro Bono Ontario initiative offers a big bang for very few bucks: It helps those who cannot afford lawyers to navigate the dangerous shoals of litigation. But the government has decided against a commitment to funding Pro Bono Ontario.
The sharp increase in the number of self-represented litigants in the civil justice system is truly troubling. While the question of why legal services are priced out of the reach of most Ontarians is a debate for another day, the reality is that, in certain civil courts, in excess of 60 per cent of litigants are unrepresented. Most of these people are left with no choice but to advocate for themselves within a highly legalized and professional system resolving issues like disputes over home mortgages, job termination, the adequacy of services received, and quality of goods purchased.
Without legal representation, many people are left with a serious lack of access to justice. This phenomenon has been described as a “crisis” by the former chief justice of Canada, Beverley McLachlin.
As a front- and first-line response, the Law Help Centres in Toronto and Ottawa provide a host of services to individuals representing themselves in the civil justice system. This amounts to more than 18,000 individuals. With the help of volunteer lawyers, these centres offer free assistance and advice to unrepresented people so that they can better prepare for and resolve their legal claims.
This work is a boon not only to the litigants, but also to the civil justice system itself. It ensures the smoother processing of claims, the use of fewer adjournments, fewer stalemates in litigation, more effective use of court time, and the termination of claims with doubtful merit. All in all, this promotes the administration of justice and furthers people’s ability to access justice in their lives – both of which are worthy goals.
In straightforward economic terms, it has been estimated that the $500,000 required of the government to support the existence and operation of Law Help Centres results in more than $5-million in cost savings and economic benefit associated with promoting access to justice for the citizens of Ontario. Law Help Centres have generated over $2-million of value in pro-bono lawyer time from the private sector.
In 2015-16 alone, lawyers and law students in Ontario donated 22,200 hours' worth of pro-bono services assisting self-represented litigants. Moreover, as a result of the hours donated by legal professionals, the reduction of court proceedings and increased court efficiency, the provincial government saves $10 for every dollar spent on Law Help Centres.
Despite these benefits, the Ministry of the Attorney General has indicated it will not commit to funding the centre. For a government supposedly committed to fiscal responsibility, such a stance makes little financial sense. Despite their protestations, it appears more about advancing a neo-conservative political agenda.
Even if you put aside the financial return associated with funding the Law Help Centres, there is a more fundamental consideration. It is a question of simple justice that transcends liberal or conservative politics. It is about the ability of individuals to access justice in their daily lives. For a government that campaigned on the goal of improving the lives of ordinary Ontarians, it is incumbent on the government to ensure that ordinary Ontarians are able to effect justice in their lives.
Law Help Centres make that effort easier and at very little cost to the provincial government. To abandon Law Help Centres would be a travesty. It behooves the Attorney General to champion the cause of justice and ensure that all efforts are made to save the essential and much-needed work of the centres.