Editorial: Feds to blame for legal aid cuts

Lawyers for refugees are understandably upset with Legal Aid Ontario’s trial balloon about scaling back services for some applicants.

As Law Times notes on page 1 this week, LAO has raised the prospect of providing limited services to those with very little prospect of making a successful refugee application and to those with a very high likelihood of success.

The approach would involve moving those clients towards web- and phone-based services while focusing more on those in the middle whose chances fall between the two extremes.

It’s certainly logical on the face of it. LAO, according to its consultation paper on the issue, has seen its expenditures for immigration and refugee cases increase to nearly $18 million in 2011-12 from $12 million in 2007-08.

The increases come as LAO has suffered a number of financial blows, including reduced funding from the Law Foundation of Ontario. At the same time, the federal contribution to refugee legal aid in Ontario fell to $6.7 million in 2011-12, a reduction of $2.7 million from the previous year, according to LAO.

In addition, legal changes to the refugee system are putting greater pressure on applicants. Under Bill C-31, which will come into effect in December, those who claim refugee status at ports of entry will have to submit the basis of their claim within 15 days following a referral to the Immigration and Refugee Board.

The need for legal assistance, then, becomes even more important as the timelines shrink. Lawyer Raoul Boulakia points out the irony in the call for cuts when he tells Law Times’ Yamri Taddese: “The justification for these cuts is that there is more need. Go figure.”

There’s also the argument, of course, that those refugee applicants with the lowest likelihood of success are the ones most in need of legal assistance.

And given many applicants’ limited English skills when they first arrive in Canada, a lot of them aren’t going to be able to manage the process largely on their own within 15 days of landing here.

It’s clear, however, that LAO is in a difficult situation. But the blame for it really should be on the federal government. It has reduced its commitment to refugee legal aid despite the fact that it’s responsible for immigration and refugee matters in Canada.

Provincial governments have also raised concerns about federal funding for legal aid in general, particularly for criminal and civil matters. On Oct. 31, for example, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for justice and public safety raised the issue during a meeting with their federal counterparts.

But while they predictably tabled their requests for more money, they also had to make due with acknowledging “the importance of retaining a five-year federal commitment of $560 million,” the federal government noted last week. So the federal government is effectively shutting the door on new money for legal aid.

Given the current budget constraints, that may be inevitable. But it’s clear that if the federal government is going to be making the rules around the refugee application system, it shouldn’t also be cutting funding for legal aid services and leaving provincial organizations to deal with the fallout.

Freezing funding may be necessary for the time being, but if the federal government is going to cut Ontario’s portion at a time of increasing demand, it should be taking the blame for the service reductions organizations like LAO may have to make.

Glenn Kauth

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