Toronto

Legal aid cuts will clog Ontario's already crowded courts, lawyers warn

Lawyers are warning that fresh changes to Ontario's legal aid system triggered by Ford government funding cuts will clog up the courts and reduce people's chances of getting a fair bail hearing. 

Changes are 'good news for taxpayers,' says spokesperson for Attorney General Caroline Mulroney

Changes announced Wednesday mean that accused people facing a bail hearing in Ontario will no longer get legal aid funding to hire their own lawyers.

Lawyers are warning that fresh changes to Ontario's legal aid system triggered by Ford government funding cuts will clog up the courts and reduce people's chances of getting a fair bail hearing. 

Legal Aid Ontario announced new policies Wednesday on its funding for bail hearings in the wake of the government's $133-million cut to the agency's budget.

The changes 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. Instead, they must be represented by a legal aid staff lawyer, known as duty counsel. 

A spokesperson for Attorney General Caroline Mulroney said the full-time duty counsel are already available at bail hearings for those accused who need legal aid. 

"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 Mulroney's press secretary Jesse Robichaud in an emailed statement. "This is bad news for lawyers who bill by the hour, but good news for taxpayers."

Criminal lawyers say duty counsel are already overburdened and will not be able to do what's required to adequately represent the large number of clients likely to be thrust upon them. 

The move will create a "coverage crisis" in bail court, says Stephanie DiGiuseppe, a criminal lawyer with the Toronto firm Ruby Shiller Enenajor DiGiuseppe. 

"Bail accounts for an overwhelming amount of what's done in a courthouse every day," said DiGiuseppe in an interview Wednesday. "You will now have a small fraction of the number of lawyers covering the same amount of work. It's going to result in a bottleneck." 

The union representing legal aid staff lawyers, the Society of United Professionals, concurs. 

"Taking on a substantial number of complex matters that require a full day of preparation or special accommodation means we can't do as many routine cases," said Dana Fisher, a duty counsel at Toronto's College Park courthouse, and a union spokesperson.

"That could leave people facing charges unjustly locked up for an unreasonable amount of time as they await their turn for bail," Fisher said in a news release. 

Stephanie DiGiuseppe, a criminal lawyer in Toronto, predicts changes to legal aid funding for bail hearings will create a bottleneck in Ontario courts. (rubyshiller.com)

Legal Aid Ontario is also cutting in half an enhancement paid to lawyers to handle cases of clients with mental health issues and cutting a special payment for cases of Indigenous clients by 40 per cent.

The government is "targeting people who are low income" with its legal aid cuts, said lawyer Fathima Cader.

She is particularly critical of cuts to funding for specialized and community legal aid clinics, including Canada's oldest and largest such clinic, Parkdale Community Legal Services in Toronto.

That cut "indicates a really vindictive intent on behalf of either the government or Legal Aid Ontario," said Cader in an interview Wednesday. 

Legal Aid Ontario changed its funding to the legal clinics to "ensure resources are targeted to direct, front line services for real people," said the statement from Mulroney's press secretary. 

Cader dismissed that as "a mischaracterization and minimization" of the work that such clinics do. "Community work is direct client work," she said. 

Criminal lawyer Michael Spratt warns of "massive delays" at Toronto's Old City Hall courthouse. 

"Old City Hall is the busiest provincial courthouse in all of Canada, with a very high number of marginalized and impoverished defendants," said Spratt in an interview Wednesday on CBC Radio's Metro Morning,

He said the Ford government`s cuts to legal aid "don't make sense when it comes to the proper administration of justice."

He predicts they will result in more wrongful convictions and more people pleading guilty to crimes they didn't commit to avoid the prospect of having to represent themselves in a trial. 

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