'People do get sent back': cuts to legal aid systems worry local organizers
Matthew House says it helps more than 200 people with refugee claims
A provincial funding cut means Legal Aid Ontario has stopped accepting new immigration and refugee claims.
The cutoff started Tuesday. In Windsor, this funding affects hundreds of refugee claimants who are waiting for their day in court.
"These cuts are realistically putting the lives of men, women and children at risk," said Mike Morency, executive director of Matthew House.
Matthew House works with refugee claimants until they have had a hearing — and there are currently more than 200 people being assisted by the group.
"Refugees who have legitimate claims, reasons to fear for their lives in their home country, may have their claims denied because they weren't represented by a professional," said Morency.
The province told Legal Aid that only federal funding can be used to cover immigration and refugee services. the amounts to less than half of the between $30 million to $34 million needed by the agency for the year.
The provincial government also cut overall funding to the organization by 30 per cent.
"We help people obtain benefits from social service for food and shelter, we help tenants maintain housing, we help workers get wages they have been denied," said Marion Overholt, director of Community Legal Aid and Legal Assistance of Windsor.
"Our work is about providing the basics of life."
Legal Aid funds the certificate system (providing legal aid certificates to anyone who meets a financial criteria) and the clinics, like Windsor's. The 72 clinics across Ontario are only 20 per cent of the Legal Aid budget.
"If a 30 per cent cut comes to our clinic, there's no question that I would have to lay off staff and cut back on legal services," said Overholt.
Overholt said she agrees with the premier that Ontario should be a 'place to grow.'
"But it should also be a place to recover," said Overholt. "I'm very concerned with the cuts, that we will be in a position and unable to help people who need it most."
Morency said when refugees are unable to access legal aid or end up with less experienced lawyers, claims get denied.
"People do get sent back," said Morency.
Legal Aid Ontario has said they will honour all clients currently being served.
In Windsor, more than 3,600 people were helped by Legal Aid in Windsor through Legal Assistance Windsor and Community Legal Aid.
With files from Flora Pan and Windsor Morning