Ontario dumps funding for refugee and immigration law services

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Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli is congratulated by Premier Doug Ford after presenting the 2019 budget at the legislature in Toronto on Thursday, April 11, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO:  The Progressive Conservative government is slashing the budget of Legal Aid Ontario, including eliminating funding for refugee and immigration law services _ a move lawyers with the organization call a “horrific” decimation.

Legal Aid Ontario sent a letter to staff Thursday as the government tabled its first budget, saying the province is reducing funding to the organization by 30 per cent.

That means it will receive $133 million less in this fiscal year than the $456 million it had anticipated.

The budget says “streamlining the delivery of legal aid to promote long-term sustainability” is expected to reduce the funding by $164 million in 2021-22.

Legal Aid CEO David Field said the organization will try to find savings through innovation and use of technology, but it will be “challenging.” Contemplating layoffs is premature, he said, but possible.

“It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but it’s not something that we’re looking forward to,” he said.

Dana Fisher, a legal aid lawyer herself and a spokeswoman for the union representing 350 Legal Aid Ontario lawyers, said it’s hard to see how cutting a third of the organization’s budget can be accomplished through “streamlining.”

“A cut of that nature is going to be horrific at any point in time, but the nature of it starting immediately is just going to cause ripples throughout the justice system,” she said.

“You’re looking at immediate impacts to defending people’s rights to liberty, to access to justice, to people being able to fight for custody to their children and access to their children, including women who are fleeing domestic violence.”

Field also said the province has indicated it will no longer fund refugee and immigration law services, “outside of any potential transition costs.” Legal Aid Ontario currently spends about $45 million a year on those services, and the portion the federal government will contribute this year is expected to be between $13 million and $16 million.

“We’ve been instructed by the province to build a program that fits within that envelope,” Field said.

Fisher said the funding cut will put lives at risk.

“From the immigration perspective, these are individuals who are facing extradition and torture and persecution and these are real lives that are going to suffer as a result of these cuts,” she said.

Ontario has previously asked the federal government to pay more for refugee services, demanding Ottawa foot the entire bill for temporary housing, social assistance and school spaces for thousands of irregular border crossers who are seeking asylum in the province.

The Law Society of Ontario said the overall cut to Legal Aid’s budget will have a significant impact on vulnerable Ontarians.

“This major reduction in such a short period of time will cause increased court delays and threatens to seriously disrupt the administration of justice,” treasurer Malcolm Mercer said in a statement.

A single person must earn below $17,731 to qualify for legal aid.

Attorney General Caroline Mulroney did not respond to a request for comment.