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Criminal

Legal aid eligibility increase a 'positive step'

Legal Aid Ontario’s decision to increase its financial eligibility threshold to provide lawyers for those in need is a move in the right direction, but doesn’t go nearly far enough, says Toronto criminal lawyer Lindsay Daviau.

“Any increase in the financial eligibility is welcome and should be viewed as a positive step in making legal aid more accessible to those in need of assistance,” she tells AdvocateDaily.com.

Daviau, a lawyer with Rosen & Company Barristers, says the reality is the increase “just isn’t enough.

“A six-per-cent increase still leaves an overwhelming number of people who find themselves facing serious criminal charges, but who can’t afford basic necessities, let alone the ability to hire a lawyer,” she says. 

Daviau comments after the province announced that effective April 1, about 140,000 more Ontarians will be eligible to receive legal aid.

“This has been made possible by the province's investments in Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) to increase access to legal aid services for low-income and vulnerable people provincewide,” says the government’s press release.

The province also notes it is the fourth time the province has boosted the eligibility threshold for legal aid by six per cent in the last four years. 

“This is part of Ontario's 2014 commitment to expand access to legal aid services provided by LAO to an additional one million Ontarians in ten years. With more than 500,000 additional people who will be eligible for legal aid, Ontario is now more than halfway to this goal,” says the press release.

Currently, the threshold for a single person with no dependents is around $13,000, reports the Star.

Daviau is concerned about what the eligibility increase will really mean. 

She notes that it was only back in December 2016 that LAO said it would incur a deficit of $26 million on its $440-million annual budget for that year, reports the Toronto Star

As a result of the shortfall, the agency said it was scaling back on some of its services, says the newspaper.

At the time, Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said he was concerned with LAO’s financial situation, reports the Star.

“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,” he said. “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.

“While I believe that LAO has the expertise and the resources to address these challenges, the Ministry of the Attorney General is available to provide LAO with any guidance they need.”

Daviau is troubled about the financial situation and worries what it will mean for those who need legal representation and cannot afford it. She notes that if people cannot access it because of the “scaling back” at LAO, an increase in the financial eligibility will not have a significant impact. 

The Supreme Court of Canada decision in R. v. Jordan has shone a spotlight on delays in the court system, and Daviau questions the effect that unrepresented individuals will have on that ongoing challenge.

“In this post-Jordan era, consideration has to be given to the impact that unrepresented accused have on an already over-burdened system,” she says. “Fixing the ‘delay’ problem is not something that can be done in a vacuum; the entire system needs to change, including access to counsel for those who need a lawyer.”   

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