Ontario slashes legal aid budget by 30%, eliminates refugee law funding

Ontario Premier Doug Ford makes an announcement at Queen's Park in Toronto, on Friday, July 27, 2018. Ford says he will significantly reduce the number of Toronto city councillors just months before the fall municipal election.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

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, but it will be challenging. Contemplating layoffs is premature, he said.

“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 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 of 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.

Ontario Attorney General Caroline Mulroney, left, looks on as Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks to media following his meeting with Quebec Premier Francois Legault , not shown, at Queens Park, in Toronto on Monday, Nov. 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Those plans were confirmed in a letter Attorney General Caroline Mulroney sent to Field in which she outlined the funding changes and the reasons behind them.

“Ontario expects the federal government to fully fund immigration and refugee law services for cases before federal tribunals or in federal court,” the letter reads.

“However, my ministry is eager to work with you to modernize the way these services are provided within federal funding levels, and we are amenable to LAO utilizing current provincial resources to transition to a system that is sustainable solely on federal funding.”

Mulroney’s letter said the funding cut is in part because of a drop in the number of clients Legal Aid served. Mulroney said client numbers have declined by more than 108,000, or about 10 per cent, from 2013 to 2018.

Describing Legal Aid “unsustainable in its current state,” Mulroney called on Field to implement a series of recommendations Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk made during a 2018 review of the service. Lysyk called for tighter accountability measures.

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 seek 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.