For affordable justice

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Wed Jan 27 2010

The provincial government’s decision to raise hourly fees for legal aid lawyers demonstrates its “commitment to providing a strong, stable legal aid system,” Attorney General Chris Bentley said this week. The Criminal Lawyers’ Association – whose boycott of the most serious cases forced Bentley’s hand – have called it “an historic agreement on the future of legal aid in Ontario.”

The deal does get defence lawyers back to work on legal aid cases for homicides and guns-and-gangs cases. And the pay increases, which will be phased in over five years, should help keep more experienced lawyers in legal aid and some important balance in the system.

But, as opposition critics have rightly pointed out, it would be a mistake to think that this deal solves anything but one piece of the very complex and interconnected puzzle that is our justice system.

The heart of the problem can be found in one of the defence lawyers’ arguments about why legal aid rates needed to be hiked: to attract experienced lawyers who can run cases more efficiently. That is, court delays are driving up costs for everyone in the system.

Our justice system has long been unaffordable for the vast majority of Ontarians who fall between the very rich, who can afford to pay lawyers, and the very poor, who are provided with legal aid. Stripping away the protections that provide Ontarians with a fair day in court is not an option, but nor is maintaining a system where only the rich or destitute can afford to open the courthouse door.

The government has taken several recent steps, including: an increased monetary limit for Small Claims Court to enable more cases to flow through that simpler, cheaper route; simplified rules for some civil cases to allow them to proceed faster; and a reduction in the average number of court appearances needed to complete a criminal trial.

But to date there is little evidence that these measures have resulted in the major improvements that are needed to ensure that our justice system has a “strong, stable” future.

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