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Legal aid has suffered from 'lack of leadership' across the board: lawyer

It's good at the federal Liberals will spend $26.8 million for Ontario legal aid for immigrants and refugees, but one criminal lawyer says it doesn't make up for a "lack of leadership" on the part of Ottawa or the province.

The federal Liberals topped up Ontario legal aid by $26.8M, but neither Trudeau or Ford have done enough

Trudeau's legal aid top-up is good, says Michael Spratt, but no one has done enough.

It's good news for the legal aid system that the federal Liberals will spend $26.8 million for Ontario legal aid for immigrants and refugees, says a criminal lawyer. But Michael Spratt, says it doesn't make up for a "lack of leadership" on the part of Ottawa or the province on legal aid issues.

Spratt told CBC News legal aid helps prevent wrongful convictions, and helps defendants who can't afford representation from clogging the courts. And he supports Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's one-time legal aid top-up for refugees and immigrants to compensate for the cuts delivered by Ontario Premier Doug Ford. 

But the federal Liberals haven't made promised reforms to the legal system, he said. Every government, past and present, has dropped the ball on this.

Here's what Spratt had to say about why reforms are needed, and how they'd be cheaper for taxpayers in the long run.

The federal government announced yesterday that it will commit $26.8 million to Ontario's legal aid system. What's the money for?

This is money to cover a funding shortfall — for this year only — for immigration and refugee services. Back in April, Doug Ford and then-Attorney General Carolyn Mulroney cut funding for legal aid in Ontario by $133 million.

Part of this funding was for immigration and refugee services. Ontario cut all funding in that area and directed that no legal aid money could go to that specific area of service. The federal government has stepped in, and for this year only, has announced that they will cover that funding shortfall.

Is this money enough to keep Ontario's legal aid system afloat? 

It's not. It is a short-term, one-year funding announcement. We're still looking at $100 million of cuts to other areas of services. Over the last number of months, community legal clinics that help individuals who live at the margins of society with issues like landlord-tenant disputes, wrongful evictions, wrongful termination and human rights abuses have had to cut their hours and close their doors because of funding shortfalls.

We've also seen massive cuts on the criminal side of legal aid, where individuals who are presumed innocent will be in court facing well-funded and skilled prosecutors, and who may be facing the possibility of incarceration.

We're seeing more and more of those types of individuals denied modest assistance of legal aid so they can have counsel to make sure that their rights are protected.

The funding announcement made yesterday doesn't do anything to address even the systemic issues that have led to an overburdened criminal justice system, nor does that funding cover any of those services.

So how much do we need?

Well, right now we're looking at about $100 million to maintain the status quo in Ontario. The status quo is not good enough.

Over the last number of decades, both this federal government and past governments have downloaded the cost of the criminal justice system onto the province. The province has been more than happy to download that cost onto the backs of frontline service providers, and onto the backs of some of the most marginalized and desperate Ontarians.

We also haven't seen this federal government take action to make fundamental change in the justice system, to decouple the criminal justice system from issues of poverty and addiction and mental health. We've actually seen this federal government make matters worse with similar laws with respect to how overburdened and oppressive the immigration system is.

So, although the funding announcement was clearly a political announcement, we've seen a complete lack of leadership on all levels of government to deal with some of the major fundamental issues that are impacting our justice system and have led to this crisis in legal aid.

Do these legal aid cuts costs more in the long run?

They do. No matter what side of the political spectrum, or how you look at legal aid, you should actually be for a robust legal aid system.

If you are a fiscally conservative person, this is one of those cases where putting some money in at the front end actually saves cost in the long run because we know that unrepresented individuals before our courts costs a lot of money. So spending a few dollars to save a few hundred dollars is an economic argument that should be embraced.

If you are someone who only cares about community safety, we know that individuals who have counsel — who are able to hook them up with services like addiction treatment, hook them up with mental health services, and ensure that the principles of rehabilitation and reintegration are actually embraced — we know that that makes the community safer.

If you're someone who's worried about fairness, if you're someone who's worried that unrepresented individuals should should not face the possibility of jail alone, then you should also be for a robust legal aid system.

We know that unrepresented individuals leads to wrongful convictions, and that's something that we should all be concerned about.

However you look at the legal aid system, there is something for everyone to embrace.

What do you think the legal aid system needs in the long run in terms of money and systemic changes?

In the long run, we need a properly funded legal aid system to make sure that anyone who is in a desperate situation has the ability to obtain counsel.

But that means doing what this federal government, what Justin Trudeau and the Liberals promised to do back in 2015: make root changes to our justice system. To do things like eliminate mandatory minimum sentences; to do things like decriminalize simple possession of drugs.

It's ridiculous that in 2019, we think that sending someone who is homeless and in possession of a small amount of drugs because they're addicted …it's bonkers to think that sending them to jail and prosecuting them will magically put them in a better situation.

It's insane to think that prosecuting someone who is living at the margins of a society that has stolen food because they are hungry and impoverished, that that will put them in a better situation.

So we need systemic changes to decouple the criminal code from issues of mental health and poverty and addiction. We've seen a complete lack of leadership on that respect them from the federal government. That is, despite this needed funding announcement, disheartening to see.

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