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McCamus jumping in the deep end

|Written By Helen Burnett

As Legal Aid Ontario''s new chairman John McCamus takes the helm this week, the profession awaits news on who will be taking over his review of the legal aid system.

John McCamus says he needs to find out what

McCamus, a professor of law and former dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, begins a three-year term as chair of LAO on July 5. However, last year, Attorney General Michael Bryant asked McCamus to look into the legal aid system in Ontario and update his 1997 "Blueprint for Publicly Funded Legal Aid Services," looking at whether the new system is functioning properly and whether or not reform would be appropriate.

The review is to include the tools and capacities to maximize effective administration and good governance of the legal aid system, examining 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.

McCamus last carried out a review of the legal aid system more than a decade ago, and released his blueprint the following year, which detailed 92 recommendations for the system. It led to the establishment of the Legal Services Act in 1998 and the creation of Legal Aid Ontario as an independent agency in 1999.

While it was announced in June that McCamus will play a new role in the ongoing review as LAO chair, the independent review is set to continue under new leadership, which the government said it would announce shortly. Although his successor has yet to be named, McCamus says he expects the transition to be quite smooth, as the review is not at an advanced stage.

Just prior to McCamus' appointment as chairman of legal aid, the review was in early days. Meetings with stakeholders had begun and the committee had invited the submission of written briefs, originally due at the end of June.

Paul Kowalyshyn, president of the County and District Law Presidents' Association, says "There is a concern though with the timing of his appointment because obviously it's going to impact his review and we're concerned because it will delay the study that prof McCamus was appointed to complete late last year."

Louise Botham, president of the Criminal Lawyers' Association, told Law Times that they are hoping for an announcement regarding who will be leading the review in the next couple of weeks.

She says the CLA intends to make a submission to the committee, but the process is on hold until a new appointment is made.

"Our understanding is that his appointment is not going to affect the review process, that there will be someone else named to carry on that process, and we certainly expect that that would be the case. We think that this is obviously a significant issue, both for the bar and for those members of Ontario who rely on the provision of legal aid, and we wouldn't want to see that process halted," she says.

"We want to see that move ahead and we would be obviously very disappointed if the appointment of professor McCamus to his new role meant that that review was halted, but that's not what we've been told," adds Botham.

In terms of his new role at legal aid, McCamus says his first order of business will be getting up to speed on the strategic planning that has been recently rolled out at LAO.

Last month, the organization announced a new business plan and management structure aimed at improving its efficiency and effectiveness, with a new organizational structure and the goal of matching a government increase in legal aid's base funding in 2010.

"It will be quite a bit of reading and quite a bit of getting briefed by the current senior executive and staff with respect to these developments and a period of trying to get a sense of what LAO's priorities will be over the next few years," he says.

"I wouldn't identify any specific changes in any particular programs at this point. I think I need to learn more about what's been happening on the ground in recent years, what the evaluations of current delivery models might indicate with respect to possible change in the future and so on," he says.

Kowalyshyn says that while he does not know McCamus all that well, he doesn't believe that there is a more qualified person to take over legal aid at this time.

"I think that McCamus is the correct fit and I think that all law associations and all legal organizations will look forward to working with him."

Botham adds, "He has spent a lot of time looking at issues surrounding the delivery of legally aided services, so he clearly has experience in the field and an interest in the field, so we see him as a good appointment."

Of outgoing chairwoman Janet Leiper, Kowalyshyn says under her leadership, legal aid is in a much better place than it was three years ago.

"We are now . . . a topic of conversation, I think, with many politicians, whereas previously we were not," he says.

Having completed her three-year term with LAO, Leiper has been appointed visiting professor of public interest law at Osgoode Hall Law School for two years, starting next week.

Leiper's mandate will be to help advance public interest programs at Osgoode, including the implementation of the law school's new public interest service requirement for LLB students and strengthening current initiatives, such as Pro Bono Students Canada and the Teen Osgoode Program for Secondary Schools.

In addition to appointing a new chairman for Legal Aid Ontario, Bryant, along with several of his provincial justice minister counterparts, has also recently called for increased federal funding for legal aid services.

"We are joining together to ask the federal government to pay its fair share as a partner in the justice system," says Bryant. "While legal aid is a shared responsibility between the federal government and the provinces and territories, the provinces continue to contribute a disproportionate amount toward their legal aid systems."

Specifically, the provinces are asking for a federal commitment to increase legal aid and for new funding for civil legal aid, including family law cases. According to the Ontario government, the level of federal support for legal aid has remained virtually unchanged since 2003-2004, and it was recently announced that federal funding for criminal legal aid will be maintained at current levels for the next five years.

"The provinces and territories are in critical need of new, dedicated, and specific funding for civil legal aid," says Bryant.

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