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LAO cutbacks raise alarm

|Written By Benjamin Glatt

From Rainy River to Cornwall, Ont., Legal Aid Ontario’s plan to phase out the application process for assistance through its local offices is sparking harsh criticism.

Robert Barr says he’s OK with closing down Brockville’s current office as long as the courthouse location has consistent staffing.

“I don’t want to use the word that starts with ‘trans’ and ends with ‘formation.’ I want to speak plainly. It’s cutbacks,” says Etienne Saint-Aubin, executive director of the S D & G Legal Clinic in Cornwall.

LAO is in the process of a makeover by placing legal aid offices in an additional 17 criminal court locations in Ontario. In doing so, it will eliminate some of the existing local LAO offices off-site.

 “I share the same concern as many of the other lawyers,” says Saint-Aubin. “We’re going to be in for a bumpy ride.”

Emery Ruff, a lawyer in Rainy River who gets about half of his criminal law business from legal aid certificates, is also convinced his work will be more difficult when the LAO offices in his district amalgamate to span a larger region.  

“The people at the clinic are great and if they’re cut out, things will not be able to work smoothly,” he says.

As part of the change, LAO has set up a toll-free number that will offer assistance and allow clients to apply for legal aid from Monday to Friday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. in 120 languages. It has also put up a revised web site with more accessible information and a simplified online application process. 

Bob Ward, LAO’s president and CEO, said in a press release that the organization’s new telephone and online processes aim to provide a quicker and more convenient way to use its services.

“Legal Aid Ontario is committed to the use of innovation and technology to improve client services, focus resources more efficiently, and support justice system reforms,” the release said.

But, Ruff, for one, doesn’t agree.

“The telephone system will work like any other telephone system. You’ll be on hold, you’ll be pushing buttons, and no one will care,” he says.

“There’s going to be a lot more frustration. If you ask me, the whole thing is a screw-up.”

LAO, however, has maintained it was legal aid clients who asked for the technological changes as a way of having a more convenient way of applying for assistance from home. Saint-Aubin, though, says LAO is making the changes based on inaccurate information.

“Who is it that legal aid serves? If you’re running a store, you have to know who your customers are,” he says.

“The people who use legal aid generally are a very high representation of functionally illiterate persons. These are not the people who are doing online shopping at Holt Renfrew. It’s not the right way to do things.”

The moves come just a few months after the government announced plans to increase funding for legal aid in order to “serve more people” and make a “broader range of information available with more upfront access to it.”

Part of LAO’s current plan, though, calls for amalgamating some regions within a greater geographical area. With that will come more challenges, says Robert Barr, a lawyer in Brockville, Ont. He points out, for example, that Brockville’s area director for LAO was local lawyer Robert Wilson. He had held the position for more than 25 years until he died in a tragic accident last year.

“Wilson knew everybody and not just the lawyers,” says Barr. “He knew the accused and their families, too. He was really in touch with the needs of the community. He was someone we could approach informally.”

Leslie Ault, who is also from the area, has been the acting area director in the Lanark, Leeds, and Grenville region, but that position is set to disappear as the legal aid office gets set to take its direction from the area director in Ottawa.

“The new director can’t possibly have the same connection as they did,” says Barr.

The proposed elimination of the local area committees that hear appeals from people who have been declined a certificate is also a concern for Barr.

“I fear that the changes will compel persons seeking redress to travel to Ottawa to make their pitch to a centralized area committee,” says Barr. “For many, that would be an undue hardship.”

But in e-mailed responses to questions on the issue, LAO said some of the predicted difficulties wouldn’t be an issue as experience has shown that having criminal defendants and family law litigants travel back and forth from court to a legal aid office creates delays in the justice system.

Nevertheless, while in places like Chatham and Sarnia, Ont., going back and forth from the legal aid office to the courthouse would be a strenuous hike for someone without a vehicle, in other cities they’re very close. In Cornwall, for example, the legal aid office is about 100 metres from the courthouse. Meanwhile, in Fort Frances, Ont., the office is just three blocks from the court.

But for Barr, the main concern isn’t the location of a legal aid office but that there is always someone there.

“I’m not opposed to closing down the office as long as you have consistent staffing at the courthouse [office] all the time. Otherwise, we’ll see huge delays for clients trying to get certificates. It’s important that an accused person can meet with someone just to talk about the application.”

But so far, the plan to provide the same amount of staff at the courthouse as previously existed elsewhere isn’t likely to happen. “The functions of some positions will change, some positions will no longer be required, and some new positions will be needed,” LAO said in its response.

While LAO wouldn’t confirm precise numbers, Cornwall’s office is expected to close, reduce its four workers to one, and then move that lone employee into space at the courthouse, according to recent media reports.

There are also reports of staffing cuts in Sarnia. At the same time, LAO has amalgamated its Parry Sound, Bracebridge/Muskoka, and Barrie, Ont., offices into the central district, meaning the Bracebridge office is also facing possible changes.

In the end, Barr’s other big concern is whether the new way of delivering services will work.

“The local practitioners will adapt. My main concern is for the local people.”

  • Legal Aid Office closings

    Alan Arkilander
    I am not certain what they do in other areas, but the LAO in Sudbury is well run and the area director is an experienced lawyer, who resolved a number of files through mediation, thereby saving the system tens of thousnds of dollars. By closing these offices the legal aid applicants and the public will be the losers in the long run.
  • Sombody\'s going to be stepping down as CEO

    I've read this article and I can tell you that you've only touched the tip of THIS iceberg. If the public only knew what is really going on at Legal Aid. 54 area offices will be closed by the end of March, with nearly 300 people out of work. I can tell you that the bigger offices in the GTA are back-logged, overworked and underpaid as it is. This "transformation" as they call it, is going full steam ahead and they're flying by the seat of their pants, they don't know what's going on. They implement something and then figure out the kinks later. How they will replace the service that 54 area offices provide to the public everyday, is beyond any comprehension. Do they really expect that 30 Client Service Centre telephone representatives, a few parallegals, a few Duty Counsel, a couple of Family Law Centres, and 9 district offices will be able to replace 54 area offices? How will they manage to service all these clients and process their applications? I'll tell you what will happen. Firstly, to qualify for Legal Aid, the new proposed guidelines dictate that a single person will not be able to earn more than $10,800 gross per year, to qualify for a free certificate. If clients earn over that amount, they will have to contribute to their legal fees or be refused outright. In essence, if you work 40 hours a week and earn minimum wage, you're going to have to hire your own lawyer. What's going to happen? The poor will not get due justice, there will be serious delays in the system, clogged up court rooms being forced to hold matters over until Legal Aid can get their act together. There will be frustrated clients, lawyers and Judges. Our Legal Aid system is being destroyed. They've given the criminal law bar an increase to shut them up for now but it's obvious that this is pointing to a Public Defender's System. All we have to do is look to our neighbours to the south, to know that this will be a complete disaster. My prediction is that within 6 months to a year, they'll be scrambling to hire people back, wasting more money in retraining and Bob Ward will be stepping down as CEO of Legal Aid. What a shame to waste all this money in vain.
  • The bottom line

    Actually, two bottom lines: money and statistics. The main purpose of this shift to technology over people is, of course, to save money. The second is to provide statistical "proof" of what an improvement the "restructuring" is. The only thing that will really be proven is that statistics can be used to prove anything at all. As for the claim that people have asked for a telephone or computerized application process in preference to an in-person one - let's see some proof of that, Mr. Ward. No one who works in the field rather than in an office is hearing that. No front-line person believes that. But since those are the jobs being eliminated, nobody is listening to them.
  • Guest
    I agree clients do not want a phone service. We had client into our office who would prefer to wait and speak in person with an interviewer even if they end up having a long wait. Some clients have indicated that they have tried to get through on the phone and had a long wait just to get to the first phase and that was to speak with CSC and then have to wait to get connected to an interviewer.
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