Legal Aid Ontario officials say the agency will have to suspend all immigration and refugee services in November if the federal government does not come through with much-needed funding.
That would mean that an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 refugees and immigrants who otherwise would have been provided LAO legal services will be self-represented in provincial tribunals and courts, LAO officials say.
Lawyers say that such a shutdown would slow down an already overburdened system and contribute to the current glut of self-represented litigants that are struggling to navigate a complex area of law.
“A total and complete cut is going to have a severe impact on some of the most marginalized and vulnerable members of our society,” says Robert Blanshay, the incoming chairman of the Ontario Bar Association’s citizenship and immigration law section.
He says this could result in tribunals such as the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada having to issue a lot more adjournments and postponements.
After announcing it was running a $26-million deficit in late 2016, LAO requested $13 million from the federal government to help plug its budget gap. But the government has only committed to $1.9 million of that funding.
LAO officials said that increases in demand for immigration and refugee services were a large part of the reason for its budgetary woes.
The cost of refugee and immigration services has increased to $27 million in 2016-2017 from $20 million in past years and is forecast to reach $33.6 million in 2017-2018.
In a series of consultations, LAO contemplated a number of proposals that included suspending all services when funding was set to run out in August or September and suspending most services except for some services for asylum seekers.
The agency was hoping to cut the cost of the program down to $20.5 million.
But after considering temporarily suspending some services on July 1, LAO ultimately decided against any suspensions to the program.
Jawad Kassab, the executive lead for LAO’s refugee and immigration program, says the agency’s board of directors authorized the use of $6 million in deficit funds to stretch out services in the hope that the federal government will come through with the funds before November.
“So it’s going to be a tough, tough thing, but without any money at all from the federal government, it will be very difficult to continue beyond November,” Kassab says.
He says the initial plan was to first suspend particular services, but as the agency is going to stretch all services through the summer, there would be a complete suspension of all refugee and immigration services in November.
Kassab says this is part of a nationwide problem.
In late June, B.C.’s Legal Service Society announced that it would stop accepting applications for immigration and refugee cases on Aug. 1 due to a lack of funding. The LSS blamed the global refugee crisis for a 145-per-cent increase in demand in B.C. over the last three years while government funding has not kept up.
Since 2002, the federal government has contributed $11.5 million every year to six provinces for refugee legal aid, of which LAO has received around $7 million each year. The federal provincial governments provided a one-time injection of an additional $7.7 million for LAO in December 2016 to help address a shortfall in 2016-2017.
The federal budget that was released in March announced $8.6 million for Ontario for two years before returning to $7 million for the three years after.
But LAO says it needs more in order to meet demand, and if it doesn’t receive it, immigration and refugee services could be suspended from November until March 2018.
“We cannot continue to run a car on fumes,” says Kassab.
Blanshay says there must be another solution other than shutting the whole program down, which he says will have grave ramifications.
“I don’t deny there are significant financial demands on Legal Aid Ontario,” he says. “All I’m saying is that there have got to be more reasonable viable solutions than locking the door and saying ‘closed, out of business, no more legal aid for refugees and immigrants.’”
Blanshay says the possibility of the program closing down in July caused increased anxiety for a community already dealing with large levels of stress.
“Throwing out the baby with the bath water isn’t necessarily the solution,” he says.
Kassab says LOA is looking internally at whether the agency can improve its cost effectiveness and efficiency. LAO is also evaluating how it assesses applicants for financial eligibility.
In a statement sent to Law Times, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said the Department of Justice is actively working with other departments and provincial governments to try to address increases in demand.
“We are currently working with Legal Aid Ontario and the provincial government to try to address additional funding pressures that the organization is experiencing this year,” she said.