Ontario slashes legal aid by 30%, eliminates refugee law funding
TORONTO — The Progressive Conservative government is slashing the budget of Legal Aid Ontario, including eliminating funding for refugee and immigration law services — a move lawyers with the organization call a "horrific'' decimation.
Legal Aid Ontario sent a letter to staff Thursday as the government tabled its first budget, saying the province is reducing funding to the organization by 30 per cent.
That means it will receive $133 million less in this fiscal year than the $456 million it had anticipated.
The budget says "streamlining the delivery of legal aid to promote long-term sustainability'' is expected to reduce the funding by $164 million in 2021-22.
Dana Fisher, a legal aid lawyer herself and a spokeswoman for the union representing 350 Legal Aid Ontario lawyers, said it's hard to see how cutting a third of the organization's budget can be accomplished through "streamlining.''
"A cut of that nature is going to be horrific at any point in time, but the nature of it starting immediately is just going to cause ripples throughout the justice system,'' she said.
"You're looking at immediate impacts to defending people's rights to liberty, to access to justice, to people being able to fight for custody to their children and access to their children, including women who are fleeing domestic violence.''
In an interview with AdvocateDaily.com, Toronto immigration lawyer Robin Seligman says this is a "very disappointing" move and will cause great hardship to many of the most vulnerable members of society.
Seligman, principal of immigration law boutique Seligman Law, says the Ontario government is putting refugee claimants at great risk by eliminating funding and urges the federal government to pick up the fees if the province proceeds with these cuts.
"Refugee proceedings are very serious and the results and consequences to claimants can literally be life and death," she says. "They need lawyers representing them."
She says this budget cut will also leave the door open for unlicensed immigration consultants.
"As well, this is very unfair to the hard-working legal aid lawyers who do so much pro bono work and work for very low fees to assist those who need it the most," Seligman tells the legal newswire.
Legal Aid CEO David Field said in the letter to staff that the province has indicated it will no longer fund refugee and immigration law services, "outside of any potential transition costs.'
"As a result, LAO will need to determine how to continue the refugee program within the current federal funding allocation,'' he wrote. "We are working on a range of options and will keep you informed.''
Fisher said the funding cut will put lives at risk.
"From the immigration perspective, these are individuals who are facing extradition and torture and persecution and these are real lives that are going to suffer as a result of these cuts,'' she said.
Attorney General Caroline Mulroney did not respond to a request for comment.
— with files from AdvocateDaily.com
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