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Letter: LAO puts new hires in context

|Written By Kristian Justesen

In your recent coverage of Legal Aid Ontario’s recent hiring of additional duty counsel (see “CLA concerned about duty counsel expansion,” Aug.18), the Criminal Lawyers’ Association’s comments do not reflect LAO’s role and mandate to provide legal aid services that are responsive to the needs of low-income Ontarians and provide for the effective use of limited taxpayers’ dollars.

The CLA mistakenly criticizes LAO for relying on duty counsel to deliver high-quality, cost-effective criminal legal aid services. LAO has done a financial analysis of per diem duty counsel positions in various courthouses. In areas where it makes financial sense, LAO will be hiring staff lawyers to replace per diem duty counsel.

Duty counsel have been a fundamental component of the criminal justice system in Ontario for almost 50 years.

Duty counsel represent low-income people who are not eligible for certificates in courthouses across the province. In some cases, these clients earn more than the certificate program’s financial threshold or their legal issue is not covered by a certificate. In all cases, duty counsel are required to provide effective and competent representation and act in accordance with the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Let’s put things into perspective: LAO’s duty counsel program has always been a small fraction of its budget. It is true that LAO has hired more duty counsel and six senior counsel lawyers across Ontario in recent years. By way of comparison, there are 4,000 private bar lawyers who do certificate work and LAO paid those lawyers more than $181 million in 2013 to provide services. Nor did the CLA mention that between January 2010 and April 2015, the hourly tariff paid to private lawyers will increase between 41 and 66 per cent. It is important to note that the majority of LAO’s new hires provide family duty counsel services. These duty counsel have helped LAO expand its services to unrepresented family litigants.

More importantly for clients, the government of Ontario has committed to raising the income eligibility threshold to qualify for legal aid assistance to the level of Statistics Canada’s low-income measure within 10 years, doubling the number of people eligible for legal aid services.

Kristian Justesen,

Director of communications,

Legal Aid Ontario

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