Ontario’s expansion of legal aid funding is a step toward fairness

Posted on November 3, 2014 in Equality Delivery System

TherStar.com – Opinion/Editorials -A provincial decision to expand access to legal aid in Ontario boosts fairness and promotes smoother operation of the entire justice system.
Nov 03 2014.   Editorial

It’s 18 years overdue and still falls short in fully addressing what’s needed, but Ontario’s newly announced expansion of legal aid coverage nonetheless marks a dramatic step forward.

About one million more low-income Ontarians will qualify for assistance when expanded eligibility for legal aid is fully rolled out over the next decade. That represents about a doubling of the population covered now and it should significantly ease the number of self-represented litigants in the legal system.

A great many Ontarians currently earn too much to qualify for legal aid but not enough to readily pay for a lawyer’s help in navigating the complex legal system. Simply put, proper access to justice is priced beyond their reach.

As a result, more and more people, especially at the lower end of the income scale, are appearing in court without a lawyer. That puts them at considerable disadvantage, and it impedes the efficient operation of Ontario’s courts.

In the first stage in its rollout, the government will spend about $96 million over three years to boost legal aid coverage. Change is already underway. As of this past Saturday people needing legal assistance, and earning less than $11,448, are eligible to retain one of 4,000 Ontario lawyers providing legal aid service. The old threshold was $10,800.

The system is complicated; there are several different thresholds, depending on the size of a family accessing help and the type of legal assistance required. But, in general, this 10-year plan constitutes important reform. Thresholds were last changed in 1996.

Critics argue improvements are too little, and coming too slow. New Democrat MPP Jagmeet Singh, a lawyer himself, has correctly noted that the newly announced increase still denies legal aid service to a great many people living below Ontario’s poverty line – currently pegged at $19,930 for an individual.

Yes, there is a need for broader assistance than what’s been announced. But there are limits to what Queen’s Park can do all at once and it makes a great deal of sense to phase in changes over several years. Making a million more people eligible for legal aid in one fell swoop seems a recipe for chaos.

The province is also seriously constrained by lack of federal support. Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur noted that Ottawa formerly paid half the cost of this program but now covers only about 13 per cent.

Despite that, the province is boosting fairness in a meaningful way and providing for smoother operation of the justice system by reducing the number of desperate people forced to represent themselves in court.

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