Windsor

'People do get sent back': cuts to legal aid systems worry local organizers

"These cuts are realistically putting the lives of men, women and children at risk," said Mike Morency, executive director of Matthew House.

Matthew House says it helps more than 200 people with refugee claims

Legal Aid Ontario says they will honour all clients currently being served. (Tony Smyth/CBC)

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. 

Matthew House executive director Mike Morency says people with legitimate claims will get sent back if they don't have the right help. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"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."

Marion Overholt says Legal Aid clinics in Windsor help with a lot of different things. (Jason Viau/CBC)

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

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.