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Latest legal aid review underway

|Written By Helen Burnett

Professor John McCamus, after bringing himself up to speed since last fall, is gearing up for a review of Legal Aid Ontario nearly 10 years after his first look into the system.

McCamus told the annual plenary of the County and District Law Presidents’ Association in Toronto recently that he has already sent out letters to interested parties as part of the review, inviting submissions by the end of June on what issues he should focus on and what, in their view, is working or not working with the current system. The CDLPA meeting was his first with stakeholders.

He has also already had a preliminary meeting with Legal Aid Ontario, which he says will be the first of many.

“We hope to have a broad consultation process as we go through the piece,” he says.

Currently a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, McCamus last carried out a review of the legal aid system in 1997, and released his Blueprint for Publicly Funded Legal Services, which detailed 92 recommendations for the system and led to the establishment of the Legal Services Act in 1998 and the creation of Legal Aid Ontario in 1999.

Last year, Attorney General Michael Bryant asked McCamus to look into the legal aid system in Ontario and update his 1997 blueprint, examining whether the new system is functioning properly and if reforms are needed. He’ll be looking at the tools and capacities to maximize effective administration and good governance of the legal aid system, alternatives to the current tariff process, including methods of ensuring regular reviews to set and adjust the hourly rate paid to lawyers doing legal aid work.

The biggest concern for lawyers is the tariff rate for those who do legal aid work. Some also view the system as being too low and there are concerns over the big cases that eat up large chunks of legal aid’s funding.

In the meantime, LAO chairwoman Janet Leiper told CDLPA that last month’s budget announcement of $51 million in funding for legal aid over three years was “completely beyond precedence,” and has given the organization a firm foundation on which to work for the next three years.

Leiper says the government will likely release the funds to legal aid in mid to late June, which the board has decided will be allocated proportionally across the system. She says that on a federal level LAO attempts to make headway over funding for civil legal aid have not met much success.

According to Leiper, legal aid’s five-year strategic plan will focus on turning the organization’s energy to making legal aid perform better, including co-ordinating legal aid services to serve more clients, better relations with stakeholders, continued transparency, and using more innovative ways to deal with clients.

Leiper also told CDLPA the plan is to implement the newly announced five-per-cent tariff increase within the next two months.

Also at the plenary, CDLPA’s family law rules committee reported it raised several issues with the provincial family law rules committee last year, including the fact that legal aid needed to be improved to attract more lawyers to practising family law and child protection law.

While the committee noted some progress has been made with the increase in legal aid funding, much more money is needed.

In terms of the family law bench, the committee reported more judges have been appointed to ease the backlog in certain areas of the province, but it has “received ongoing complaints” that fewer specialists in family law have been appointed to the provincial bench and it will continue to advocate for a proper complement.

However, members of the family law bar in Ottawa also told the gathering that they have seen significant reductions in backlogs for case conferences since legislation passed in March allowing the addition of a family case manager in the capital’s Superior Court.

Jane Murray of the County of Carleton Law Association said the unified family law court in Ottawa found itself facing unacceptable backlogs in 2005 of two years from beginning to end.

“It was having an impact on our ability to provide good service to our clients,” she said.

As a result, several lawyers from the area formed a committee, working with a civil case management pilot project from years before, calling for mandatory mediation, mandatory information sessions, and a case management master for the court.

She added that although the attorney general indicated he would endorse the project, the government has called for the removal of the mandatory information and mediation components.

The pilot project, called Rule 42, was passed in March 2007 and allows a family case manager to hear motions and case conferences in place of a judge. It is set to continue in Ottawa until June 2010. As a result, says Lise Parent of the County of Carleton Law Association, what used to be a six- to eight-week wait time for a case conference has now been reduced to two weeks.

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