The Ministry of the Attorney General paid more than $1.8 million last year to cover the cost of resort-based conferences for lawyers, judges, and justices of the peace as well as limousine services for the Ontario Court of Appeal.
The province detailed payments made by the ministry in the fiscal year that ended on March 31 in the annual public accounts made public late last month.
Overall, expenditures on outside counsel were down in part because the inquiry into the mall collapse in Elliot Lake, Ont., had caused a spike in legal expenses in the previous year.
The ministry had a total operating expense of $1.67 billion in the fiscal year 2014-15, an amount that was down $60 million from the year before primarily because of a drop in funds related to the Proceedings Against the Crown Act. More than a quarter of the total operating expense was for court services.
Among the expenses was for the annual criminal law division conference in 2014 at the Blue Mountain resort at a cost to the ministry of $277,730. A spokeswoman for the ministry said it has an obligation to provide training to Crown attorneys and education on policies and changes in the law. “The annual education conference represents a cost-efficient opportunity to ensure that Ontario’s prosecution service is in compliance with the Law Society of Upper Canada’s continuing professional development requirements,” says Emilie Smith, a spokeswoman for the ministry. Cost and the ability to accommodate 500 to 600 people are among the factors involved in deciding on a venue for the conference.
The annual Association of Law Officers of the Crown conference took place last fall at the White Oaks Resort and Spa in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ont. The public accounts indicate a payment of $375,915 to the association that represents about 750 government lawyers outside of the criminal sphere. The contribution is part of the collective agreement between the province and the association.
Kate Matthews, president of the Ontario Crown Attorneys’ Association, and Earl Dumitru, who heads the Association of Law Officers of the Crown, didn’t respond to requests for comment about the conferences.
The public accounts included $1 million spent by the Ontario Court of Justice for six educational conferences, spread over 16 days, at the Deerhurst Resort and White Oaks.
“Timely and effective judicial education sessions are a critical responsibility for the court,” says Kate Andrew, senior counsel in the chief justice’s office. “The sessions brought together almost a thousand faculty and judicial participants on a range of criminal, family, and provincial offences legal issues — as well as judicial case management, technology, professional and ethical issues.”
The public accounts also include a cost of $178,000 for limousine services for the Court of Appeal. Alison Warner, senior legal officer at the court, says limousine services have “historically been provided” to its judges on days they hear appeals. “Court of Appeal judges often work while they are commuting and often transport large amounts of materials back and forth from work,” says Warner.
“These services are used by some judges of the Court of Appeal, some of whom live considerable distance from Osgoode Hall.” Limousine services also used to be available to Superior Court judges in Toronto until the NDP government ended the practice in the early 1990s.
The public accounts indicate expenditures of a further $57,000 on limousines. “In addition to the Court of Appeal, Rosedale Livery Inc. was engaged by the Superior Court of Justice,” the ministry said.
While conferences at resorts and limousines aren’t part of the work environment at community legal clinics, Lenny Abramowicz, executive director of the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario, says he’s not complaining about such perks.
“We could always use more money,” he says. But the long-term increases in funding for legal aid announced this year, including for clinics, is welcome news, he says, suggesting the province “has taken an important step in the right direction.”
The inquiry into the June 2012 mall collapse in Elliot Lake also affected the top billings by outside counsel. Commission counsel and lawyers involved in the inquiry billed a total of just under $1.6 million for fees and disbursements. The previous year, when the bulk of the inquiry took place, total legal billings were $4.9 million.
Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, which had two of the three commission counsel at the inquiry, had the top billings for outside counsel in 2014-15 at $1.1 million.
The second highest billings came in at $538,329 from Toronto firm Henein Hutchison LLP. The ministry says the amount was for legal work related to disciplinary proceedings before the Justices of the Peace Review Council and the Ontario Judicial Council.
In addition, there were 11 lawyers who each billed more than $200,000 in fees and disbursements for services provided to the Office of the Children’s Lawyer.