Legal Aid cuts will hit low-income Ontarians hard

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With the $26 million deficit and subsequent cutbacks at Legal Aid Ontario, it is possible that thousands of Ontarians who cannot afford a criminal lawyer will be in Ontario tcourts this year without any representation in a confusing and complex system.

“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,” explained Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said in a statement in mid-December. “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.”

In order to qualify for legal aid, a person must fall below its current household income threshold, which is about $13,000 for a single person with no dependants. LAO plans to raise the threshold by 6 percent starting in April 2017.

Legal aid certificates for criminal defence will still be issued in cases where there is a “substantial likelihood of incarceration,”. Meaning that many marginalized individuals, who may not be facing jail time but could be deported, face hefty fines, criminal records if convicted — will be left to defend themselves in courtrooms across the province. LAO may issue a legal aid certificate on a case-by-case basis for people from “vulnerable client groups” facing trial but not necessarily jail time.

“If these cuts go through, thousands of people will be left to fend for themselves,” OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas said. “They may not be at risk of incarceration, but they could face other life-altering consequences if convicted, such as deportation, or fines they can’t afford to pay.

“This is wrong,” he said. “This is Ontario. Everybody has the right to legal representation, rich or poor. We call on Legal Aid Ontario to hold off on the cuts until the results of an independent audit are known.

“The workers at LAO do crucial work for the community,” Thomas continued. “We trust that management will work diligently to support staff who are experiencing stress and fear of unforeseen consequences during this uncertain time. And if management thinks they will save costs by cutting staff, they will have my 130,000-member union to answer to.”

OPSEU represents more than 200 members at Legal Aid Ontario who provide back office support in policy, IT, and finance, as well as front-facing workers supporting the provision of legal services to Ontarians in need.

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