Hamilton

Legal aid cuts haven't created a backlog in Hamilton yet, but lawyers fear next year

The Hamilton Community Legal Clinic has managed provincial legal aid cuts this year, says its executive director. But next year, it will have to make some hard choices that could impact people with low incomes who need legal advice on issues such as employment, social assistance, and disputes with their landlords.

Supporters of legal aid marched through downtown Tuesday

Val Kuri, a summer law student at the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, led the march through Gore Park to protest provincial cuts to legal aid. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The Hamilton Community Legal Clinic has managed provincial legal aid cuts this year, says its executive director. But next year, it will have to make some hard choices that could impact people with low incomes who need legal advice on issues such as employment, social assistance, and disputes with their landlords.

So far this year, the clinic has weathered about $75,000 in cuts to its $3-million annual budget, said executive director Hugh Tye. But if the province continues to cut legal aid funding, that won't be the case next year.

"We had a retirement this year and two parental leaves, so that has allowed us to adjust by not filling positions," he said. "But we know in the next fiscal we're going to have to start making pretty tough choices." 

Tye was at a downtown demonstration called "Save Legal Aid" Tuesday, where about 50 people marched through Gore Park with signs that read "access to justice for all" and "legal aid saves lives." Demonstrators, many of whom were lawyers working at the clinic, wore courthouse robes and carried gavels.

"I was here at 7:30 a.m.," says Lance Dingman, right, who joined Elizabeth McGuire to protest the cuts. "It’s supposed to save money somehow and I don’t see it at all." (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Community legal clinics are non-profits that provide legal advice to clients, typically those who make up to about $17,000 a year. That includes giving advice on social assistance and employment insurance benefits, workers compensation, tenant rights, immigration help and affidavits and notary services. Criminal cases are handled through Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) offices, although community legal clinics get part of their funding from LAO too.​​​​​​

The Association of Legal Aid Clinics of Ontario organized the day of action Tuesday, which saw events across Ontario

For its part, the province denies that Hamilton is impacted by legal aid funding cuts so far. 

"Based on financial reports from clinics, LAO estimates that two-thirds of legal clinics, including Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, will receive larger funding allocations this year than they spent last year," said a statement from the attorney general's office. 

"In the next fiscal (year), we’re going to have to start making pretty tough choices," says Hugh Tye, executive director of the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"The government is committed to sustainable legal aid funding. Lawyers and special interests groups are welcome to protest, but we would prefer to work with them to build a sustainable, affordable, client-focused legal aid system for the future of our province."

The Ontario PC spring budget shows a $133-million cut to legal aid.

As for criminal cases, LAO says staffing in the Hamilton office is still the same, and there's been little backlog so far. 

"We continue to closely monitor service, and work with local courts to ensure its ongoing quality," it said in a statement.

About the Author

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca

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