Criminal Law

Legal Aid cuts in Ontario ‘a devastating affront to justice’

By Staff

Budget cuts to Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) are an attack on the access to justice movement, Toronto criminal lawyer Jessica Zita tells The Lawyer’s Daily.

Zita, an associate with Hicks Adams LLP, says the 30 per cent reduction in provincial government funding equates to a $133-million cut this year and a $31-million reduction in 2020.

“Funding cutbacks in this sense will only further the accessibility divide — the [most] vulnerable members of society will have even less access to the legal help they fundamentally need and are constitutionally prescribed, all the while making legal services a more luxurious expenditure,” she writes in the online legal publication.

“Accessibility to the legal system under which everyone is bound will become limited to privileged few.”

Zita writes in The Lawyer’s Daily that Premier Doug Ford incorrectly believes the reduction will put money back in the hands of taxpayers, and “insinuates” that Legal Aid funding has been “misused at the hands of lawyers.”

“While he is correct in his understanding that there are lawyers who rely heavily on LAO, he is dangerously wrong in his bald insinuations that these lawyers are overpaid,” she says. “This is a fact criminal defence lawyers know well. LAO fees pay much less than the market value of their services.”

Zita adds, “Many if not all defence lawyers who accept LAO are not doing so to line their wallets; on the contrary, they are doing so because they believe that any individual subject to the criminal justice system is entitled to representation. At its core, they accept LAO simply to help those in need. So yes, lawyers, especially criminal defence lawyers, rely heavily on LAO funding. But that’s not a choice: it’s an indication of who requires help the most.”

What is being forgotten in the debate over LAO funding is the “delicate balance” criminal defence lawyers strike between individuals and the state, Zita writes in the legal publication.

A defence lawyer stands between the accused and the allegations of a state with vast resources at its disposal, she says.

“This basic tenet of our justice system that benefits us all seems to be lost on the current provincial government. A lawyer defending an individual against the allegations of the state has always faced an uphill battle. The state has infinite resources to tap into; the majority of defence lawyers, by contrast, simply do not,” Zita writes.

“... Imagine then what even further cutbacks to an already strained system will do.”

She says that it seems the premier’s “main gripe” centres around the fact more money is spent on lawyers’ fees than the cases themselves. However, she contends that in a system where defence lawyers already accept “a pay cut by market standards” to ensure the Crown is accountable to the public in its prosecutions, “It yet again remains unclear what Premier Ford is seeking to achieve.

“In continuing to justify these reductions, Premier Ford has said that ‘[T]he people that actually need the system to help them, they aren’t getting the proper support.’ [I] assume he means that the money made available by the LAO cuts will be put towards court administration,” she says.

“Perhaps at best that would provide accused persons with more in-court resources. They would still require counsel. LAO empowers individuals with the ability to choose a lawyer.”

The lack of Legal Aid funding will lead to an increase in self-representation, more delays, and higher costs within the justice system, Zita writes.

“The money saved as a result of today’s LAO cuts will pale in comparison to the ruin that will become our justice system, and the resulting cost that will no doubt mount from having to manage self-represented accused without assistance or ability to access counsel,” she says.

“There will also be further strain added to the courts by the anticipated increase in constitutional challenges that will be brought from this obvious violation of Charter s. 10(b). These cuts to legal aid hurt society as a whole and are a devastating affront to justice,” Zita says.

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