The government and public agencies at the centre of the province’s legal aid system remain tight-lipped about a massive budget shortfall at Legal Aid Ontario, despite a leaked internal memo revealing the impending crisis.
The Globe and Mail recently reported that it had received a copy of an “internal memorandum” from LAO president and chief executive officer Bob Ward.
The document reportedly contained details of a $56-million budget shortfall, $40 million of that attributed to a decline in funds from the Law Foundation of Ontario.
The Law Foundation provides LAO funding from the interest accrued on lawyers’ trust accounts.
The Globe also reported Ward said the steep drop in funding would continue for “several years.” Cuts or changes to the duty-counsel system and legal aid clinics were reported as possible areas to make up for the cash drought, Ward reportedly indicated in the memo.
An LAO media representative says Ward is on vacation and unavailable, but issued the following statement: “Legal Aid Ontario monitors all aspects of its financial operations.
The organization has been anticipating a decrease in non-government funded revenues from the Law Foundation of Ontario, as a result of the difficult economic climate. It is too early to know for certain what those revenues will be.
“For some time LAO has been working closely with the Ministry of the Attorney General to develop a modernization plan to deal with the LFO revenue shortfall while improving client service and value for taxpayers.”
The statement said LAO is still looking for advice on the issue from stakeholders.
Ayumi Bailly, director of policy and programs at the Law Foundation, says, “I can’t confirm anything that was in that memo.”
The foundation’s 2008 allocation to legal aid will be revealed when it makes public its annual report. Bailly said the report will be released “shortly,” but must first be submitted to the attorney general.
According to the foundation’s 2007 annual report, it gave legal aid over $56.6 million.
In a subsequent e-mail to Law Times, Bailly said, “. . . given the nature of our revenues, significant fluctuations from year to year have to be expected. We remain supportive of LAO and will continue to make our contributions to LAO based on our revenues.”
Valerie Hopper of the Ministry of the Attorney General, says the government is aware the law foundation’s revenues are expected to decline this year.
“We can’t speculate on what, if any, impact this is ultimately going to have on legal aid funding; we don’t have the final numbers,” she says, adding she “doesn’t have a time frame” for when the final numbers will arrive.
“We have been working actively with Legal Aid Ontario and service providers to transform the legal aid system,” she says.
The budget shortfall will add new pressure to a system already under attack through a growing boycott by the province’s criminal defence lawyers. Last week, Ottawa’s criminal defence bar joined the Criminal Lawyers’ Association’s ongoing protest of legal aid rates, which it says are inadequate and cause an imbalance in the justice system.
The boycott, which began June 1 in Toronto, has criminal lawyers throughout the province refusing to take on legal aid cases involving serious charges such as murder and guns-and-gangs offences.
CLA president Frank Addario says the budget constraints that LAO faces stem from “two decades of cuts and freezes.”
He says: “The attorney general knows this, and the government knows this. The difficult challenge for the government now, is to respond swiftly enough to save the program from complete discredit in the legal community and the wider community.”
Addario suggests the size of LAO’s apparent budget decline can be attributed partly to the economic recession.
However, he adds: “The problems with legal aid are immune to Ontario’s economic fortunes. In good times, bad times, boom, bust, or periods of in-between, legal aid has been a neglected program.
It would be a mistake to link this particular aspect of the crisis to the wider revenue problems that Ontario is facing.”