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Justice for all: a growing imbalance

The recent announcement of a new contract for Ontario Crown attorneys and government lawyers reflects a recognition of the value and importance of legal services within the administration of justice. However it is equally important that the people who need those legal services have access to the system, and can receive the advice and assistance of a lawyer.Legal Aid Ontario is facing three major pressures: increased demand for services, more people being turned away because of overly restrictive financial eligibility criteria, and legal aid rates that are so far below market rates that many lawyers are being forced to stop helping legal aid clients.

Without resources to address these three priority needs, the gap between low-income legal aid clients and the rest of the justice system continues to grow. This disparity within the justice system, often within the same courtroom, raises questions about how legal aid organizations can continue to provide high-quality legal aid services to low-income clients.

The recent report on sole practitioners and small firms, completed by the Law Society of Upper Canada, cited a number of practitioners who said they could no longer continue to afford to give legal aid services.

Increased debt loads for law school graduates also limit a new lawyer's ability to make legal aid work a part of their practice.

LAO does its part to support legal aid practitioners with initiatives such as the mentor program, research, and online materials, but more needs to be done to continue to attract sufficient numbers of lawyers to serve the growing needs of low-income Ontarians.

In addition, we are turning away more people ? people who desperately need legal assistance but who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. In fact, the number of people who qualified financially but were refused legal aid service due to budget constraints has increased by 22 per cent in less than two years.

For lawyers to be able to serve low-income clients in need, the work must be affordable. The increase for Ontario Crown lawyer salaries underlines the problem of legal aid work becoming increasing unaffordable.

 The hourly rates paid to lawyers, already significantly below market rates, have been increased only twice in 20 years, the equivalent of 0.5 per cent per year, forcing many lawyers to stop doing legal aid cases altogether.

Reduced numbers of legal aid service providers translate into higher numbers of legal aid clients who are unable to find a lawyer to take their case. Many legal aid certificates are going unacknowledged, meaning a legal aid certificate was issued to a client but no lawyer ever took on the case.

In Ontario's north, the problem is felt acutely. In some areas, clients looking for lawyers to represent them in the months ahead are either unable to find counsel or have to wait months to get an appointment with a lawyer who takes legal aid. Similar situations are becoming more common in other rural and even urban areas in the last few years.

While the ability to provide increases to rates paid to private lawyers is a serious concern, we are equally concerned about our ability to provide adequate salary increases for legal aid staff. Pay increases for staff at legal aid and at clinics have not kept pace with other public sector salary increases. Beyond that, legal aid lawyers in most other provinces are paid equitably with Crown lawyers, as recognition of the similar kinds of work they do.

A staff lawyer at a clinic told us recently that her salary was already significantly less than her partner's ? he is a Crown attorney. She has three years more practice experience than he has and says, "Should this raise go through, my husband's salary will be about 150-per-cent higher than mine, yet we are ultimately both funded through the same source."

The recent funding announcement by the Government of Ontario that it would begin to provide Legal Aid Ontario with necessary funding to pay for the 2002-2003 increase in rates paid to private lawyers was a good first step for the stability of the organization. With no additional funding until now, Legal Aid Ontario has been using savings to absorb these and other increased costs.

The next steps are logical. Current funding has reached the point where it is no longer adequate to meet existing service requirements. We are at risk of losing lawyers who do legal aid work. This trend can be addressed by a demonstration of the value of the work being done and a response to increases in demand for legal aid services.

A healthy and balanced justice system needs a healthy and properly funded legal aid system. Ontario needs a justice system that is more accessible to all. Poverty cannot be a barrier to justice.

Having recognized the need to provide increases in Crown lawyer salaries, how can we fail to ensure that our clients have access to stable, high-quality legal services that respond to their needs? The answer includes ensuring that we keep committed lawyers and other staff willing to provide those services.

Janet Leiper is the chairwoman of Legal Aid Ontario.

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