Legal aid clinics fight to save their budgets

Posted on July 15, 2013 in Child & Family Debates – opinion/commentary – Community legal aid clinics seek reprieve after Legal Aid Ontario cuts their funding.
Jul 15 2013.   By: 

Ivana Peticone, the executive director of ARCH Disability Law Centre, is fair-minded to a fault.

She likes John McMcCamus, the head of Legal Aid Ontario, even though he just sprang a 1.6-per-cent cutback on her legal aid clinic and 76 others. She believes his concern for the poor is genuine, despite the hurt his cutback will cause. She understands the needs to modernize the legal aid system, although she disagrees with the way he is doing it.

But there are some things Petricone can’t accept:

  • The funding cut he just announced — retroactive to April — came out of the blue. It violated an agreement with theAssociation of Legal Aid Clinics promising there would be no cuts in 2013. “They (officials at Legal Aid Ontario) claim it’s not a breach because the province cut their funding.”
  • This spring he asked the clinics for a report outlining ways they could tighten up their operations, work together, physically amalgamate and take advantage of digital technology. They submitted their recommendations on July 2. Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) ignored most of them and came out with its own strategy that calls for “reducing rentable space per staff person” and “using protocols to promote efficiency and eliminate unnecessary steps.”
  • Similarly he asked a committee of legal aid clinic managers to develop a set of performance measures for the sector. “We worked hard with LAO,” Petricone says. But they were nowhere to be found in its plan.

“It’s hard to reconcile some of these statements,” she says quietly.

Avvy Go, director of the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Aid Clinic, is sharper-tongued, probably because she’s used to fighting for clients who seem invisible to politicians. “We were completely blindsided,” she says.

The only way she can downsize further is to move to a smaller office or lay off her Chinese-speaking staff. “For the first time in my career — and I’ve worked at legal aid clinics since I graduated — I’m seriously looking for another job. I can no longer serve my clients.”

The majority of her clients don’t speak English, don’t understand the basics of Canadian law and come to her with tangled cases of eviction, language woes and immigration difficulties. Judging her clinic on a cost-per-client basis — the yardstick LAO now uses, Go says — guarantees a bad rating. “I must be the one of the most inefficient lawyers in the system.”

Like Petricone, she thinks McCamus is a decent man who recognizes the importance of poverty law and supports the clinic system.

Both lawyers were encouraged by the blueprint he drafted for Ontario’s legal aid system in 1997 as a law professor at Osgoode Hall. The chapter on poverty law conveyed a deep concern about the vulnerable. On the specific issue of legal aid clinics, his support was unequivocal. “We (the seven-member committee McCamus chaired) strongly support the continuation and expansion of the current clinic system and propose only discrete reforms designed to make it function more effectively.”

Some legal aid clinics will be hit harder than ARCH, Petricone says. “My clinic is larger than normal. We can absorb the cut this year. But for some clinic managers, it will mean layoffs.”

Go worries that hard-to-serve clients — those with the most complicated problems and biggest hurdles to scale — will be turned away. Clinics will grab the low-hanging fruit to survive, she predicts.

They don’t want to resort to finger-pointing or bitterness. They’ll try to persuade McCamus or Attorney-General John Gerretsen this summer to reverse or postpone the 1.6-per-cent cutback. But they’ve grown doubtful that middle-class lawyers with computers, smartphones and material comforts can empathize with their clients, who live in shelters or group homes; don’t have computer access; can’t decipher government documents and don’t know their basic rights.

It is not that policy-makers cut without caring — they cut without understanding the consequences of what they do.

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