Criminal Law

Legal Aid cuts penny wise but pound foolish: Fennel

By Peter Small, Contributor

Cuts to Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) will lead to unjust convictions as more defendants are forced to go unrepresented, Toronto criminal lawyer John Fennel says.

“There will be more people accused of crimes making decisions that they’re not fully informed about, which can result in them pleading guilty to things they didn’t do,” says Fennel, an associate with Hicks Adams LLP.

Legal Aid Ontario’s CEO, David Field, has sent an email to staff saying that front-line services would “remain strong,” but the agency will be slashing full-time positions, implementing a hiring freeze, and freezing management salaries, among other internal measures, the Toronto Star reports.

Field told LAO staff in a previous email that its funding allocation would be reduced by 30 per cent, or about, or about $133 million, the newspaper reports.

Although Fennel says it is unclear what areas the agency will cut, he believes it may reduce funding for people accused of low-level crimes. They are often marginalized and already have trouble navigating the system to get legal aid, he says.

“They’ll end up pleading guilty to time-served dispositions, often just to get out of jail, because by the time they do get legal aid they’re done,” he tells

Had they been able to obtain a lawyer earlier, their cases could have been resolved more quickly and satisfactorily, Fennel says.

More people will also end up representing themselves at trial, which will increase court costs as judges are forced to slow down proceedings to explain the law, he says.

“This is an area where spending some money up front is going to save you a great deal of money later on and also plenty of grief down the road,” Fennel says.

More appeals will likely follow cuts because a lack of legal representation plays a major role in unjust convictions, he says. However, many injustices could go unnoticed if Legal Aid Ontario also reduces funding for appeals, Fennel adds.

In his email to LAO staff, Field said the agency is “exploring regulatory changes to support service improvements, efficiencies and cost savings,” pertaining to issues such as discretionary payments, which he defined as payments over and above the regular tariff paid to private lawyers for work on a case, the Star reports.

Fennel believes many defence lawyers will do fewer legal aid cases if discretionary payments are reduced.

Lawyers already subsidize the system by doing work that has been inadequately covered through legal aid, he says, adding this unpaid workload is increasing as the volume of disclosure explodes, especially digital files and videos.

“You know you’re not going to be able to be compensated for your time, but you feel compelled to do it in order to protect the client’s rights,” Fennel says.

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