Ottawa

Province failing most vulnerable after legal aid 'gutted,' lawyer says

An Ottawa defence lawyer says some the most vulnerable people are already being left in the lurch by a broken court system that's struggling to pick up the pieces from a massive cut to Legal Aid Ontario's budget.

Legal Aid Ontario cuts duty counsel service that aided defence lawyers

Lawyers at the Ottawa courthouse often have to be in two places at once, but there's concern cuts to a Legal Aid Ontario service could make that harder to do.

An Ottawa defence lawyer says some the city's most vulnerable people are feeling the effects of a court system that's been "gutted" by a massive cut to Legal Aid Ontario's [LAO] finances.

In April, the province slashed LAO's budget by $133 million.

Then in October, the Ottawa office responded by cutting a courtroom service that permitted duty counsel — a lawyer provided by legal aid — to stand in when an accused person's actual defence lawyer couldn't be in court.

The specific courtroom where that service is most often required is one where people in custody appear, usually by video, before they've had a bail hearing.

"In the grand scheme of things, it is one of many ways in which access to justice in Ontario is being gutted," said Leo Russomanno, a defence lawyer in Ottawa.

"This is death by a thousand cuts, but this is a pretty significant one." 

Leo Russomanno says the change Legal Aid Ontario has made following the $133-million budget cut is hurting the most vulnerable people the hardest. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Many of the people who appear in that courtroom are facing serious charges, are financially disadvantaged, and are disproportionately Indigenous or racialized, he said. 

The government has an obligation to these people, and they're failing them.- Leo Russomanno, Ottawa-based defence lawyer

Until Oct. 15, LAO offered work to defence lawyers who would relay messages to the court on behalf of other lawyers — messages that would set out how those lawyers would want to proceed with their client's case.

Russomanno said it was an essential service that allowed defence lawyers who may be in another courtroom or working on another matter to know their client still had someone on their side.

Without having a lawyer present, low-income clients are now at risk of their cases not moving forward, Russomanno said — with the potential they could be stuck in custody for an indeterminate amount of time.

He compared the courtroom's schedule to waiting for a cable installer to show up: you can't leave or you might miss your case.

'Challenging decision'

"It was a challenging decision," said Annik Wills, LAO's director general in Ottawa.

The choice to cut the courtroom service wasn't made lightly, Wills said, and was done after months of trying to find a workable solution.

She said the increasing number of courtrooms in Ottawa has put pressure on all lawyers, forcing them to juggle matters that may be happening in different places at the same time.

Ultimately, however, LAO had to cut somewhere to make up the budget shortfall, Wills said.

"It was a very difficult exercise to look at all of the services that we're providing and find ways to create efficiencies while having the minimal impact on clients," she said.

Wills couldn't say if other LAO offices in Ontario were taking the same step to deal with the budget cut.

Annik Wills, director general for Legal Aid Ontario in Ottawa says cutbacks forced the office to remove the duty counsel service that relayed messages from defence lawyers to the court. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

Time to 'wake up'

In a statement to CBC Ottawa, the Ministry of the Attorney General said it supports LAO's "careful and thoughtful approach to allocating duty counsel resources in a way that minimizes direct impacts on their clients."

"This is an opportunity to focus on client needs, to deliver programs that are easier to access, and to serve low-income Ontarians better. The government will continue to work closely with LAO in its modernization efforts," the statement said.

Russomanno, however, called the cut a "justice system problem."

"All of the participants, I think, need to wake up and realize that access to justice is not being served in this way," he said.

"The government has an obligation to these people, and they're failing them."

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