Legal Aid Ontario withdraws threat to suspend immigration and refugee services

Legal Aid Ontario has backed away from its threat to suspend immigration and refugee services by 40 per cent. The idea was a cost-savings measure for the organization which says it simply doesn't have the money it needs to help those who need it.

Federal funding has stayed stagnant since 2002

Legal Aid Ontario says the number of immigrants and refugees requiring their services has 'changed dramatically in recent years.' According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees there are now 65.6 million forcibly displaced people around the world. (Brian Rodgers/CBC)

Legal Aid Ontario has backed away from its threat to suspend immigration and refugee services, which would have cut the group's costs by about 40 per cent. 

It said it needed to pare down the annual cost of the program from $33.6 million to $20.5 million.

The group first announced it was considering cutting back those services in May, and then began a province-wide consultation on the idea. 

At the time, it said the organization couldn't continue to foot the cost overruns for its refugee program, as it had been doing for the past number of years.

On Monday, Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) posted a brief update on its website, that said "as a result of intensive stakeholder consultations in May and June, and ongoing discussions with government, LAO has decided to continue immigration and refugee services at the current level at this time."

No representation for refugees

The threat of cuts continues to cause concern for many, including Tara Bedard, the executive director of immigration partnerships for the Region of Waterloo.

"The people who access legal aid don't have the option to pay for private legal services," Bedard told The Morning Edition's host Craig Norris on Friday. 

"So, for many of them it would mean they would not have legal representation for their hearings, and given the complexity of our legal system, and of our immigration system in particular, it would probably have a very negative impact on the outcomes of their proceedings."

Legal Aid Ontario estimates that 14,000 refugees and immigrants used its legal services last year. 

Problem not resolved

Bedard said the Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support currently has a 70 per cent success rate for refugee claims.

"They feel without the support of legal aid for their clients, that would drop drastically." 

The Region of Waterloo says there are approximately 1,000 refugee claimants with pending cases in the area, which serves as a regional hub for newcomers.

It said it will lobby the federal and provincial governments to appropriately fund Legal Aid Ontario so the cuts can be avoided — permanently.

"The cuts will still go ahead if they don't address their funding gap," warned Bedard.

Unstable funding from feds

According to a consultation paper, Legal Aid Ontario's refugee program used to cost approximately $20 million a year, but the number of people accessing the program has been growing, and costs are on the rise.

"In the last two years, the cost has increased to $27M in 2016/17 and is forecast to cost $33.6M in 2017/18," said Legal Aid Ontario.

Federal funding to Legal Aid Ontario for refugee matters is $7 million annually — an amount that has stayed the same since 2002.

According to their consultation paper, the group was given one-time funding of $7.72 million from the provincial and federal governments, but it says the money came with no guarantees for the future.  

"As a result, LAO must take immediate steps to ensure it operates within its means and, for the long term, LAO must consider making changes to how it delivers services to ensure LAO can help as many refugees and immigrants as possible."

With files from the CBC's Joe Pavia