Canada: A Threat To Access-To-Justice In Ontario

Last Updated: May 18 2017
Article by Katelyn Bell (Summer Law Student)

Legal aid is a central component of the Canadian justice system, and of justice systems elsewhere in the world. Legal aid helps those individuals who are otherwise unable to afford legal representation and access to the court system. No matter the legal issue – be it a landlord/tenant dispute, or a child custody dispute – legal aid is available to low-income Canadians in order to promote access to justice.

In 1998, the Ontario government enacted the Legal Aid Services Act. This Act speaks to the Province's commitment to legal aid and access-to-justice. However, recent statistics have revealed that our Province's commitment may have extended a bit too far, financially speaking.

As reported by Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) this past January, the agency has a deficit of approximately $26-million. Not surprisingly, the agency will require "significant support to enable it to meet its targets," one of which includes assisting more than 1 million Ontarians annually.

LAO has had to make some difficult decisions regarding cutbacks in order to remain afloat. One of the most notable decisions made by LAO is that the agency will no longer cover costs for a criminal dispute unless there is a "substantial likelihood of incarceration."

What this means is that many low-income Ontarians are now left with no choice but to represent themselves. Not only is this stressful for the self-represented litigant – who if convicted, may lose their job or be faced with a fine they're physically unable to pay – but it also eats up more oh-so-valuable court time, as the Judge has a duty to ensure the self-rep is given a fair trial. In order to appropriately exercise this duty, the Judge is required to aid the accused in the proper conduct of his/her defence, and guide him/her throughout the trial in order to ensure the defence is brought out suitably.

In January, Attorney General Yasir Naqvi ordered a third-party review of LAO's finances. The review was conducted by Deloitte, who found that the changes implemented by LAO thus far are insufficient, and more must be done in order for the society to realize significant savings.

LAO's president and CEO, David Field, disagrees with Deloitte's findings and states that LAO is "happy with the progress we're making [since December]."

However, when one considers the recent influx of refugees to Canada, the picture is again worrisome. Many refugees are low-income, which means that the LAO is likely to face increasing demands for services in the near future, and this is a demand they'll be unable to meet.

Cooperation from the Federal government is essential to resolving the problems faced by LAO, and by legal aid agencies across Canada. Ultimately, the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Finance must take action to initiate federal funding for legal aid, not only for Ontario, but for Canada as a whole. And with regards to Canadian taxpayers, though we all have a lot to say about the uses to which our money is being put, it's hard to argue against improvements to the justice system, especially when such improvements are so vital for so many Canadians.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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