Rallies and events held around Ontario to protest legal aid cuts
Lives are in the balance, says director of Parkdale Community Legal Services
Legal clinics around Ontario are holding co-ordinated events on Tuesday to protest provincial cuts to Legal Aid Ontario.
In April, the Progressive Conservative government slashed nearly 30 per cent of the organization's budget and said that it could no longer use provincial funds for refugee and immigration cases.
To draw attention to the cuts, clinics from Kenora to Toronto are setting up outdoor pop-up legal clinics, holding protests, and delivering letters to their local MPPs.
The day of action, organized by the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario (ACLCO), lists nearly 50 events in all.
Parkdale Community Legal Services in Toronto, the oldest and largest legal aid clinic in the country, began the morning with a rally and march.
"We in our neighbourhood are having palpable moments of grief and loss due to the impacts of the cuts already. We're also standing strong, and saying no," said director Johanna Macdonald in an interview on CBC Radio's Metro Morning.
Their goal, she said, is a complete reversal of the cuts.
Vulnerable people most affected
Macdonald laid off some staff this week and said that by June of next year, ten of the clinic's 22 staff will have been let go, severely reducing its capacity to deliver services.
She sees that as a devastating loss for the clinic's most vulnerable clientele, who rely on legal help to fight for basic rights like payment and housing.
Macdonald said the erosion of those services could "absolutely" lead to deaths.
"The reality is that many people are just one issue away from being in a terrible situation. Legal Aid, particularly Legal Aid clinics help people with the basic necessiies of life like keeping a roof over their head and food on the table," said Lenny Abramowicz, executive director of the ACLCO.
'Unchecked windfalls for lawyers'
But reports from the past five years show that more money has been spent "without achieving the results that legal aid clients or taxpayers should expect," Jenessa Crognali, the press secretary for Ontario's attorney general, said in a statement to CBC Toronto.
"Ontario's legal aid system is decades old and we are the first government to take on the vitally important task of fixing it," Corgnali said.
She added that lawyers and other legal service providers need to work with the government to create a sustainable, client-focused legal aid system "to protect what matters most by ensuring that in Ontario's dire fiscal situation, every available dollar is dedicated to front-line services rather than outdated bureaucracies and unchecked windfalls for lawyers."
A 45-minute drive away from Parkdale, Scarborough Community Legal Services (SCLS) and West Scarborough Community Legal Services held a mid-day protest at the office of MPP Raymond Cho.
“Another promise broken” - the effects of the cuts on access to justice and community legal aid <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Scarborough?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Scarborough</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Justice4All?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Justice4All</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/LegalAidMATTERS?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#LegalAidMATTERS</a> <a href="https://t.co/E6NvobPQ1S">pic.twitter.com/E6NvobPQ1S</a>—@SCLSclinic
"Minister Cho should be one of the loudest voices speaking out against these cuts but he is nowhere to be found," wrote SCLS executive director Renee Griffin in a statement.
In Guelph, where the Legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County has been operating since 2002, employees set up a table outside to offer up cups of coffee and an explanation of the work they do.
"We're welcoming people to come and have a conversation with us," said executive director Anthea Millikin.
Good morning Guelph! We are outside the Clinic this morning serving coffee and meeting people on the street! Come by for a chat! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/wecanhelp?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#wecanhelp</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/CamGuthrie?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@CamGuthrie</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/MikeSchreiner?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@MikeSchreiner</a> <a href="https://t.co/GioUxcztJF">pic.twitter.com/GioUxcztJF</a>—@GWLegalClinic
Sending a message to Queen's Park
"Anything that makes it harder for clients to access help is a concern for us," said Millikin.
At the Grey Bruce Community Legal Clinic in Owen Sound, services so far are uninterrupted — but paralegal Dawn Robertson said she is concerned about what next year's budget will bring.
Members of Robertson's team set up a booth in front of the Owen Sound city hall to educate the public on their work and send a message to the province.
"We're hoping that they understand the value of the clinic system, and how justice is for all, not just for some," Robertson said.
CBC Toronto has requested reaction from the Ministry of the Attorney General.
With files from Metro Morning