Legal Aid Ontario overwhelmed
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Head of Legal Aid Ontario stretches every dollar but can’t meet swelling need.
Jul 03 2013. By: Carol Goar
The head of Legal Aid Ontario, John McCamus, is acutely aware that the majority of Canadians can’t afford a lawyer. He understands why taxpayers in Ontario, who provide $350 million a year to his agency, are angry to learn they aren’t eligible for help.
“You have to be really poor to qualify for legal aid,” the former law professor explained, wincing at the sound of his own words.
How poor? An individual must have an income below $10,800 a year. “That’s $208 a week,” McCamus stressed. The threshold for a single parent with one child is $18,000.
Even an applicant who meets these income qualifications may not get assistance, he added. “You may be poor, but the criminal cases we cover have to have a likelihood of incarceration. In family law, the case has to involve domestic violence or child custody.”
McCamus didn’t make these rules and he can’t change them. Only the provincial legislature can do that.
What he can do — and has done in his six years as chair of Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) — is find ways to provide help to people who wouldn’t normally qualify for it. By delivering existing services in smarter, more efficient ways, he has been able to divert millions of dollars into new services.
One of his innovations was a call centre. By phoning a toll-free number — 1-800-668-8258 — Ontarians can find out within minutes whether they are eligible for legal aid. If not, they will be referred to other programs and services. They can also get up to 20 minutes of free legal advice. The call centre, run out of LAO’s headquarters at 40 Dundas St. W. in downtown Toronto, serves approximately 1,300 clients a day. “We believe we’re connecting to many more people than we used to,” McCamus said.
A second streamlining measure, which saved $1 million a year, was the consolidation of all of LAO’s operations on one floor of one building (Atrium on Bay). The new headquarters has no individual offices. Everyone, regardless of rank, works out in the open.
Next he moved LAO’s local offices right into local courthouses, saving litigants the stress of running around town and saving his agency the rent on stand-alone facilities. “If you’re told (by a judge or court officer), ‘you’d better apply for legal aid,’ it’s right in the building.”
These three changes freed up enough money to create seven family law information centres (four of them are in the GTA: Toronto, North York, Brampton and Newmarket). Anyone, regardless of income, can use these centres to get basic questions answered, court documents properly filled out and preliminary legal advice.
Most recently, he launched a pilot project to provide mediation to divorcing couples. He convinced former attorney general Chris Bentley that this would pay for itself by diverting legal aid applicants from “slugging it out in court.” The experiment showed such promise that the current attorney general, John Gerretsen, extended the funding for three years in this spring’s budget.
McCamus’s next priority is to develop a mental health strategy. Adisproportionate number of the people who end up in Ontario’s courts — and jails — have mental disorders. LAO wants to respond to these clients more appropriately and compassionately.
For all his modernizing, millions of people who need legal counsel can’t get it. Some try to represent themselves in courts, often with deleterious results. Others simply give up and live with their plight, even if it means staying in a violent relationship or carrying a criminal record.
“Public confidence in the justice system is damaged and diminishing further day by day,” says Julie Macfarlane, a University of Windsor law professor who has just completed an 18-month study of self-represented litigants. “I was really horrified by the social, emotional and psychological consequences of this on many people.”
McCamus shares her deep concern. He is stretching LAO’s resources as far as he can. But he can’t meet the swelling need and the Ontario government can’t — or won’t — provide the funds he needs to make access to justice a reality.
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Legal Aid Ontario has saved $1 million a year by consolidating its operations on one floor of one building.