Making justice more accessible

Posted on July 30, 2008 in Equality Debates, Governance Debates, Inclusion Debates – Opinion/editorial – Making justice more accessible
July 30, 2008

In an ideal world, everyone should have equal access to the justice system. But reality often falls short of that goal in Ontario.

The rich can afford to hire their own lawyers. The very poor can secure government-financed legal help – mainly for criminal, family, poverty and immigration matters – through Legal Aid Ontario. But the majority of Ontarians who fall somewhere in between are often forced to choose between financial ruin and representing themselves.

Just as troubling, even those who qualify for assistance are at risk of not getting it as some lawyers have stopped taking legal aid cases, due to a fee schedule that falls below market rates.

To its credit, the McGuinty government recognized the problem. Last year, the government asked University of Toronto law professor Michael Trebilcock to take a hard look at the legal aid system and recommend reforms. Trebilcock recently delivered a thorough report that urges changes to a system that is still struggling to recover from funding cuts in the 1990s.

The challenge now for Attorney-General Chris Bentley will be to decide whether the province can afford to implement the recommendations. Even Trebilcock acknowledges: “There is no gainsaying the conclusion that a significant infusion of new funds is required to put the legal aid system in Ontario on a healthy and sustainable basis.”

One of Trebilcock’s chief recommendations is a significant increase in the eligibility threshold for legal aid. Under current guidelines, a single person with a net annual income of more than $13,068 may be deemed too well-off for assistance. Yet that person would be hard-pressed to pay basic living expenses in Toronto, let alone hire a lawyer.

Trebilcock’s report notes that increasing the number of eligible legal aid recipients without also ensuring an adequate pool of lawyers willing to take their cases would be a recipe for trouble. To that end, Trebilcock recommends that current rates (up to $96.95 an hour) be raised “in the immediate future.”

He also argues that some legal aid services should be provided on a non-means-tested basis “so that middle-class Ontarians develop a material stake in the well-being of the legal aid system.” But it is unclear how extensive those services would be.

As the report notes, reforms to legal aid ought not to happen in isolation. Steps also need to be taken to cut criminal court delays and make the civil justice system quicker and more affordable.

In response to the report, Bentley’s spokesperson said yesterday that the attorney-general “is determined to get to a better place on legal aid,” but not overnight. Fair enough. Trebilcock’s recommendations clearly need to be evaluated and costed out.

But as more Ontarians are priced out of the justice system, reforming legal aid should be on Bentley’s to-do list.

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