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'This is what civilizes a society'

|Written By Helen Burnett

An organization such as Legal Aid Ontario should not have to be struggling financially, according to Stephen Lewis, the UN Secretary-General''s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Stephen Lewis says with billions in the federal surplus and a healthy budget in Ontario, governments should provide better legal aid funding.

Speaking to lawyers, community legal workers and administrative staff of legal clinics at the annual Toronto Community Legal Clinics conference last week, Lewis voiced his support for legal aid and commented on its recent budgetary concerns.

"There's something nuts about the fact that Legal Aid Ontario is in financial difficulty," said Lewis.

"If one could wave a wand I would give Legal Aid everything they asked for," he added.

Last month, Legal Aid Ontario announced that its certificate program was $10 million over targeted expenditures after a mid-year review and that it would be changing its payment schedule in attempts to address the issue. At the moment, the organization is working on a 14-day payment cycle through Legal Aid Online, which will change to every 21 days in mid-January and every 30 days as of the end of March 2007.

In addition to its most recent financial announcement following the mid-year review, the organization also announced earlier this year in its 2006-2007 business plan that its contingency fund, set up when Legal Aid Ontario was created, is also close to being depleted.

"LAO's savings will be depleted by next year. There is no longer a safety net for the increased operating costs it continues to face," the report states.

The fund had a balance of as much as $30 million in 2001-2002, and was originally set up in order to meet the needs of increased costs, according to Legal Aid.

The report also noted that because of the need to stay within its current budget, one-third of family law applicants are being turned away and the rate of refusals for representation in criminal matters has climbed 32 per cent since July 2004. The overall rate of people refused service has increased by 42 per cent over the last two years, says the plan.

In addition to more funding, the organization has said that it needs a "justice system that is more accessible to Ontario's poor."

Lewis told the conference that it is not acceptable that an organization that makes such a contribution to the human condition should be struggling financially.

"This is what gives a society its substance, this is what civilizes a society," Lewis said of the teams of people that drive the medium of social change.

Commenting on the billions in annual federal budget surplus, which he noted are used to pay down the debt, Lewis added, "You can't take one or two billion to address the issues of poverty, injustice, discrimination?"

"We have huge surpluses federally, we have a reasonable budget in the province of Ontario, and we can't begin to address the problem of poverty," he said.

Lewis also commented on the upcoming Rental Tenancies Act, which is set to take effect January 2007 and will allow hearings for tenants before they are evicted. According to Legal Aid, the number of tenants facing eviction applications rose from 55,331 in 1999 to 59,560 in 2003. Lewis told the conference, "I love that you have the campaign to force hearings before evictions occur."

He noted, however, that, "Life experience tells me that these changes emerge incrementally and they always take a battle every step of the way."

Lewis was a member of provincial parliament for the New Democratic Party when Legal Aid Ontario was created in 1967.

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