Lawyer worries legal aid changes will affect quality of defence

An Ottawa lawyer is concerned recent changes to Ontario's legal aid system could affect the quality of representation certain people get.

Province disagrees, says system is now more efficient

The changes announced Wednesday mean most accused people facing a bail hearing or seeking a review of a bail decision will no longer get legal aid funding to hire their own lawyer. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)

An Ottawa lawyer is concerned recent changes to Ontario's legal aid system could affect the quality of representation certain people get.

Many people facing a bail hearing or seeking a review of a bail decision will no longer get legal aid funding to hire their own lawyer. 

Instead, they'll be represented by a legal aid staff lawyer, known as duty counsel.

"Lawyers in the private bar are often uniquely placed, either because they know the client … or they have the ability to spend time with the client, with their family, to develop a plan that's going to be really strong," said Ottawa defence lawyer Anne-Marie McElroy.

"[Duty counsel] often don't have the same time."

McElroy said she is also concerned about the higher workload.

"[Resources] are going to be stretched really thin in balancing all of the demands that duty counsel has, along with running all of the bail hearings."

Anne-Marie McElroy is a director with the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa and a criminal defence lawyer. (Felix Desroches/CBC)

According to Legal Aid Ontario, people with bail hearings involving more serious charges will still be able to obtain legal aid funding to hire their own lawyer. 

However, McElroy said people should always have the counsel of their choice.

"People who are poor or marginalized are not going to be able to afford to have a [private] lawyer," she said.

Marcus Pratt, director of policy at Legal Aid Ontario, said staff lawyers currently handle 81 per cent of bail hearings in Ontario, so they have the experience.

"We're really not changing much in the world of bail. They have an expertise in that area and they will continue to do that. Providing quality frontline services for clients remains the focus of legal aid," he said.

"We have found some savings in how we provide access to justice, but it will not impact clients."

Doubling up

In an emailed statement, the province said the recent change is about eliminating redundancies in the court system.

"Legal Aid is no longer going to pay another criminal lawyer to show up for two hours to bump aside the already available lawyer," said Attorney General Caroline Mulroney's press secretary, Jesse Robichaud.

"This is bad news for lawyers who bill by the hour, but good news for taxpayers."

In April, Legal Aid Ontario received a major cut in funding when the provincial government pulled $133 million and said the organization could no longer use provincial funds for refugee and immigration cases.

"Working within this new budget envelope is challenging for us," said Pratt.

"But I think we're going forward with … a focus on ensuring that clients aren't negatively impacted and going forward, with an eye to finding efficiencies and savings."

With files from the CBC's Mike Crawley


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