Loss of researchers especially worrying, storefront lawyers say
TheStar.com – Ontario – Legal aid facing ‘troubling’ cuts
Published On Thu Feb 18 2010. Tracey Tyler Legal Affairs Reporter
Jack de Klerk had to act fast when a mentally ill man walked into a storefront law office on Queen St., fresh from an alarming legal defeat.
“He came to us and said, `I don’t want to be evicted,'” de Klerk, clinic director at Neighbourhood Legal Services, recalled in an interview Wednesday.
The man had turned in a less-than-impressive performance acting as his own lawyer before a provincial housing tribunal. His only hope for keeping his apartment was for the clinic to launch an appeal, challenging the tribunal’s decision to allow a mentally incompetent person to represent himself.
De Klerk enlisted the services of Legal Aid Ontario’s “clinic resource office,” a central research agency for 79 community legal clinics that is funded via the legal aid system.
With a roster of more than 300 clients, many in crisis, lawyers at Neighbourhood Legal Services lack time to pore intensively through case law. Thanks, in large part to the professional researchers, “we … ultimately saved this person his housing.”
In a few weeks, others living in poverty might not be so lucky.
The “clinic resource office” is on the hit list as Legal Aid Ontario makes major service cuts, which community legal clinics fear will curb their ability to serve the needy.
An email obtained by the Star says Legal Aid Ontario is projecting a deficit of $46.7 million this year, despite the recent provincial government decision to invest an additional $150 million in legal aid services over the next four years.
The clinic resource office’s budget is to be reduced as part of overall cuts in legal aid spending.
Two lawyers’ positions, currently vacant, will not be filled. A litigation assistant’s job will be eliminated and a barrister, who argues cases in court, will be restricted to part-time work, starting in mid-April.
Lenny Abramowicz, executive director of the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario, calls the development “troubling.”
Most legal clinics help low-income Ontarians with social welfare problems, including trouble with their landlord or denial of disability payments. But some are specialized operations, serving specific communities, such as the elderly, youths, Spanish speakers, South East Asians and persons with HIV.
Legal Aid Ontario’s financial picture has shifted from a surplus of $29 million three years ago, mainly because money from one of its primary funding sources, the Law Foundation of Ontario, is drying up.
The foundation administers interest from lawyers’ trust accounts. Usually, it provides about 15 per cent of legal aid’s funding (just over $50 million a year). With markets struggling and interest rates hitting lows, it has less money to distribute.
Ontario covers about 80 per cent of legal aid’s operating costs. Legal Aid board chair John McCamus was unavailable for comment.
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