Editorial: Crunching the numbers at LAO

At a time of stretched government budgets, it’s hard to argue against Legal Aid Ontario’s move in the past couple of years to dramatically reduce its deficit.

But for those looking for an explanation for why legal aid remains under stress and lawyers continue to be frustrated with the system despite the government’s promise of a lot more funding, the province’s public accounts are a good place to start.

They reveal that LAO reduced its deficit to $8.5 million in 2011 from nearly $28 million in 2010. In 2009, the shortfall was $19 million.

As Law Times reported recently, many defence lawyers are still unhappy with LAO despite an agreement in 2010 to provide $150 million in more funding over four years to improve legal aid and significantly boost the tariff paid to counsel.

But while the tariff has gone up, LAO has reduced the number of certificates it issues, meaning lawyers aren’t necessarily making more from legal aid work overall while fewer people get service.

The new ruling in R. v. Houle & McGill, in fact, made it clear how difficult it can be for people to find a lawyer willing to act on a legal aid matter.

The government, however, has largely been delivering on the funding promise as LAO’s provincial allocations increased to $321 million in 2011 from $286 million in 2009. The forecast allocation for this year, meanwhile, is nearly $333 million.

But LAO’s budget for certificates in criminal, family, immigration, and other civil matters remained relatively flat at $177 million between 2009 and 2011. In the meantime, the number of certificates issued declined to 100,387 last year from a recent peak of 117,167 in 2008-09.

In a recent presentation to lawyers in Ottawa and Brockville, Ont., LAO executives projected a small reversal in that decline this year with 102,857 certificates issued.

So where has the new money gone? Obviously, a lot went to reducing LAO’s deficit. At the same time, it appears the new funding also helped combat significant declines in the amount LAO receives from the Law Foundation of Ontario.

In addition, more money has gone to family law offices, the duty counsel program, the research facility, and bad debts expense. But LAO has also reduced what it spends on the provincial office and appears to have saved quite a bit by shifting its focus towards regional offices and its client call centre.

Reducing deficits and finding efficiencies are generally good things, but it’s obviously disappointing that the transformative change the government promised has yet to happen.

And while lawyers have benefited from the much-needed tariff increase, clients are losing out with fewer certificates and eligibility guidelines that, according to the LAO presentation, date back to 1995 and put the threshold for a single person at $10,800.

While some might say the government has done enough given its fiscal challenges, the eligibility thresholds are obviously in need of an update.

Access to justice demands it, so rather than continue to displace its fiscal pressures on the backs of low-income people facing criminal charges, the government should find other things to cut back.

Ontario Place was a reasonable place to start. Maybe a serious effort at reducing the government’s administrative costs should be next.

It’s untenable for Ontarians to continue to shoulder budget increases for the public service in general while watching frontline assistance through programs like legal aid certificates decline.

Update Feb 14: Corrected style of cause on R. v. Houle & McGill.

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