Legal Aid Ontario facing $26M deficit, scaling back services for criminal matters

In order to deal with a $26 million deficit, Legal Aid Ontario will no longer be providing certificates, which cover the cost of a private lawyer, to thousands of impoverished people facing criminal charges.

Agency miscalculated demand it would encounter after expanding services, says LAO president

David Field, President and CEO of Legal Aid Ontario, said the agency miscalculated the demand it would encounter after expanding some of its services. (CBC)

In order to deal with a $26 million deficit, Legal Aid Ontario will no longer be providing certificates, which cover the cost of a private lawyer, to thousands of impoverished people facing criminal charges.

The provincial agency will now issue legal aid certificates only to people facing a "substantial likelihood" of incarceration. Thousands of others fighting criminal charges but facing consequences other than being behind bars, such as deportation or fines, are no longer eligible.

David Field, president and CEO of Legal Aid Ontario, said that the agency could not keep up with the "unprecedented demand" for the service, which it introduced in 2015.

"The end result is that we provided more services for clients than we had available funding for,"  he said in a letter to staff on Friday.

"We now need to take steps to bring client services in line with our funding."

Field said Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) will issue 109,000 certificates this year, but only 101,000 in 2017. He said this will save the agency roughly $10 million.

As for the thousands of people who will no longer be eligible for criminal law certificates, Field said they will still have access to duty counsel — staff lawyers who assist people on the day of their hearing.

LAO has an annual budget of $440 million.

Extra funding from government

According to the attorney general, the provincial government gave LAO an extra $86 million in new funding since 2014, so that 400,000 more Ontarians would be eligible for legal aid services. 

Field said LAO used the new money to expand some of its services, including giving criminal legal aid certificates to people not facing incarceration.

"It does represent a miscalculation, if you will, in terms of our estimate as to how many certificates we'd be issuing," he said.

"It just speaks to the access to justice issue that we're facing, not just Legal Aid Ontario but the entire justice system in Ontario."

LAO also expanded services for family law, mental health clients and Indigenous people. The "mix of expanding financial eligibility and new types of services," lead to a spike in demand, Field said, including for refugee services, which increased by 44 per cent this year.

However, he said, only criminal cases will be affected by the recent changes to the certificate program.

"The changes that we've made represent minor charges in the system," said Field.

Deficit 'concerning,' says attorney general

Meanwhile, Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi called LAO's $26 million deficit "concerning."

In a statement, he said that the Ontario government has increased LAO funding to historic levels in recent years.

"Since 2014, we provided LAO with over $86 million in new funding, so that a further 400,000 low-income people qualify for legal aid services. By next year, we will have increased LAO's funding by $153 million over four years," he said.

"Despite this fact, LAO has run a deficit this year.  This is concerning. It is my expectation that LAO continues to offer the same level of services while they work to meet their internal challenges."

Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said the provincial government has increased the amount of funding to Legal Aid Ontario to "historic levels."

Naqvi said the Ministry of the Attorney General is "available to provide LAO with any guidance they need."

The office of the attorney general said that LAO received more than $312 million in provincial funding in 2014/2015. The office also said that they have increased LAO's budget every year since forming government, and has been increasing the financial eligibility threshold for the past three years.

Field says the agency will increase its financial eligibility threshold by six per cent a year starting in April 2017, until it meets the low income measure.

The current financial threshold for the certificate program for a single person with no dependants is roughly $13,000.

Get rid of 'bloated' bureaucracy, say critics

Anthony Moustacalis, president of the Criminal Lawyers' Association, criticized LAO for its financial choices.

He said the agency has developed a bloated bureaucracy in the past six years and that it should be firing some of its staff lawyers.

"It is a blow to justice in Ontario because a lot of this could be prevented by properly using the existing money," he said.

He said it would be more efficient to directing money towards the private criminal defence bar, who can offer more services more cost-efficiently.

The LAO is also making internal changes to deal with the deficit, including freezing salaries and reducing administrative costs. (Canadian Press)

Field said that LAO does not agree with the Criminal Lawyers' Association assessment.

He said that most of the time it makes more economic sense to hire a staff lawyer, instead of a private, per-diem lawyer.

"We pay private bar lawyers an hourly rate that exceeds more than $120 an hour, and we have staff on salary and we don't pay them that kind of money," he said.

"So the math between the two is very different."

In his letter to staff, Field noted that there will be a few limited exceptions to this change to criminal law certificate coverage. On a case by case basis, LAO says it may still issue criminal law certificates to people from vulnerable client groups when a case merits a trial, or to protect accused people who are fleeing an abusive relationship.

LAO looking at internal savings 

LAO is also making internal changes to save money, including freezing staff salaries at 2016/2017 levels, not filling vacancies where possible, lowering administrative costs by 10 per cent, and reducing the number of future articling positions.

Field also said LAO is reviewing its duty counsel program and reducing clinic operation budgets by $1 million.

He said they will also work with the federal government to address the funding pressure on refugee services and  "examine ways to better align our services with available funding."

"I'm confident this is a temporary issue, and that over the course of the next couple of years as the additional money comes our way, we'll be able to live within our envelope and continue to provide services," Field said.