Kitchener-Waterloo

Legal Aid cuts are attack on poor and marginalized, Kitchener MPP says

When the Ontario government first announced cuts in April to Legal Aid Ontario, the focus was the impact of refugee and immigration cases. Other groups say the cuts also affect the most vulnerable and marginalized in the province.

Taking away a person's access to justice sets them up for a disadvantage, Lindo says

Lawyers and doctors protested at Queen's Park on Tuesday against a cut in provincial funding to Legal Aid Ontario. (CBC)

Cuts to Legal Aid Ontario are "an attack on the poor," Kitchener Centre MPP Laura Mae Lindo says.

Lindo, who is chair of the Ontario NDP black caucus and is the anti-racism and citizenship and immigration critic for the party, said without proper access to lawyers, many people will be forced to give up the issues they're trying to fight.

"People living in poverty have intersecting identities. They are racialized folks, they are Indigenous folks, they are black folks. They are from here, sometimes first generation, sometimes second generation, and they are all struggling," Lindo said.

"When you take away their access to justice while putting into place policies and practices that are going to be more harmful for them, you are setting them up for a disadvantage."

Lindo adds inside those groups living in poverty are women that are fleeing domestic violence and tenants who have issues with landlords.

When the Ontario government first announced cuts in April to Legal Aid Ontario, the focus was the impact of refugee and immigration cases.

But Lindo says marginalized people are deeply impacted, even if they have "community focussed people in positions of power, like legal aid, who are speaking up on behalf of populations that feel silent and scared."

Kitchener Centre MPP Laura Mae Lindo says cuts to legal aid will hurt racialized and marginalized people. (Joe Pavia/CBC)

77 local legal aid offices will see a cut of $15 M

Shannon Down is the executive director of Waterloo Region Community Legal Services. She said they are one of 77 offices in Ontario that will be impacted, although just how much is yet to be seen. She estimates the financial cut to the office may be about 16 percent of the overall budget.

"We're going to be able to do less of the work that we currently do," Down said.

She says it means "the most vulnerable people in our community will not be able to access the services they need for a variety of legal issues. It's a big access to justice issue."

A majority of their budget goes to salaries of the 12 front line workers at the office, including Down.

All of them carry client caseloads to help people navigate the legal system.

"Most people living in poverty, when they're in crisis, what they need is immediate help, some advice, someone to talk to," Down said.

"We try to do that within 24 to 48 hours. We triage people who need help the most who are the least able to represent themselves because of various barriers [of language or disability]."

Down says the problems their clients face vary from family law, criminal matters and eviction.

A legal aid client is helped based on a financial eligibility threshold; with a single person making less than $19,000 a year. That threshold increases for couples and families.

A spokesperson for Attorney General Caroline Mulroney said in a statement the government's reforms will help more people. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Invest in services

The Ontario government announced a $133 million dollar cut to Legal Aid Ontario in April's budget.

The government said there would be an expected savings of $164 million by 2020-21.

A statement sent to CBC Kitchener-Waterloo from a spokesperson for Ontario Attorney General Caroline Mulroney says the reforms will help more people.

"The prior government spent more and more money on legal aid without achieving the results that legal aid's clients and taxpayers expect," the statement said.

"While some lawyers may not welcome renewed accountability at legal aid, every dollar saved is a dollar we can invest in the services that matter most to people, such as public healthcare and education."

David Field, president and CEO of Legal Aid Ontario, said the cuts have forced the agency to consider delays in hiring. (CBC)

Minimal front line impacts

The president and CEO of Legal Aid Ontario David Field told CBC K-W they're looking at a number of options to ensure the cuts will have little impact on clients and front line services.

"We're going to be looking at whether we can delay hirings, whether we can reduce procurements. We have a number of projects that we are looking at, whether we should be continuing them in this environment," Field said.

"There's IT for example. We have some investment in IT projects that would be nice to have, but perhaps in this environment, maybe we shouldn't be spending that money now."

Field said the agency is working to ensure the decisions are made quickly to achieve the savings it needs.

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