Provincial legal aid cuts are senseless economic and social policy

Posted on in Equality Debates

Source: — Authors:

TheStar.com – Opinion/Contributors
April 18, 2019.   By

The Government of Ontario has cut one-third of legal aid funding. Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) funds legal representation for those individuals whose annual income is less than $17,000 – in other words, the most impoverished in our society.

As a result, with some exceptions, LAO will not be in a position to fund refugee and immigration matters as of this week.

The administration of justice is provincial responsibility. Defending the cuts, the attorney general states “there are two stakeholders that must always be front-of-mind: the clients LAO serves and the taxpayers who pay the bills.” But neither stakeholder is served by the cuts.

The cuts certainly do not serve legal aid clients.

Legal aid assists people dealing with immigration, criminal, family, and child protection issues. Many refugees rely on legal aid after fleeing dire circumstances, with little command of English. It is often difficult for claimants to explain their narrative on forms with lines, boxes and words in a language they do not understand. They know the danger they are fleeing, but may not be able to explain in legal terms what has transpired or what they fear.

Regardless of the merits of the claim, the task of gathering evidence, understanding the legal tests to be met, and making oral submissions is unmanageable for many refugees. I am intimately aware of the personal trauma and the language, economic and mental health hurdles they must overcome. So many of the most deserving will not be able to navigate the complex system without adequate funding.

The cuts also do not serve taxpayers.

Government-funded lawyers are screened for quality by LAO and accept government funding for cases, which is much less than the market value of their services.

Without adequate funding, many will be forced to represent themselves, or retain the representative who quotes the lowest price, regardless of competence. The court system will be further weighed down with subsequent appeals in these matters to fix the damage caused by initial subpar representation.

Particularly vulnerable claimants may seek to cobble together additional finances by relying on exploitative work or on the black market. They may also be forced to sideline their basic needs, such as food and housing. Afraid and unable to navigate our complex system, some may go underground.

These cuts will not save taxpayers money over time, but will only download costs to other parts of the legal, health care and social systems.

Helping people when they are most in need is sound social and economic policy; in the case of refugees, it is an investment in the future contributors to our society.

Warda Shazadi Meighen is a refugee and human rights lawyer. She is an adjunct professor of refugee law at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and is Chair of the International Justice Circle at Human Rights Watch Canada.

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2019/04/18/provincial-legal-aid-cuts-are-senseless-economic-and-social-policy.html

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