AG increases Ontario legal aid tariff by 5 per cent

After having been considered a “project” for nearly 10 years, the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario is set to receive stable funding from Legal Aid Ontario, as part of the government’s cash boost to legal aid, announced last spring.

The funding for SALCO is part of a $10.5-million investment in clinic law services that will also expand poverty law services, improve French-language services, increase operating budgets and front line clinic staff salaries, and start a new information-management project.

The clinic serves one of the fastest-growing communities in the Greater Toronto Area. According to several Statistics Canada scenarios, in 10 years, more than half of Canada’s South Asian community will likely be living in Toronto.

This would include more than one million people, compared with just over 473,800 in the 2001 census. According to SALCO, in 18 months between 2004 and 2006, the clinic served 3,355 clients in-person through referrals, representing clients, providing drop-in legal clinics, and public legal education.

Started by a volunteer group of lawyers in 1999, SALCO has not had official legal clinic status until now, but has received individual project grants from the Law Foundation of Ontario and Legal Aid Ontario.

“We were always funded under [the] innovation fund as a project, the maximum money that we ever got was 18 months, which basically meant, for a legal clinic, a project is a problem because you can’t take cases and hope to finish them within the stated project time,” says Uzma Shakir, executive director of SALCO.

As a result, the clinic had to stop taking on cases six to eight months before the end of the project and could only continue on with legal education and legal outreach. Twice, the clinics doors had to be closed and the staff were either laid off or reassigned because funding had run out.

Shakir told Law Times that, while the clinic will now be receiving twice the amount it received in the past, the number is not as significant as the stability of the funding.

She adds that the clinic had been funded by legal aid for three years but it was coming to an end in September, which would have meant that the clinic would have had to close its doors again, as it likely would not have received more funding for innovation.

Last week’s funding announcement will mean the clinic will be able to double its staff from one lawyer and one legal worker and will allow staff access to opportunities available to legal clinics, such as training facilities and research databases. Shakir says the clinic’s capacity to respond is also now much greater and it now has the ability to plan for the long term.

“The biggest satisfaction is that we are now part of the legal aid system, that we have the legal clinic status like any other legal clinic, which is a recognition that the South Asian community has legitimate needs and should be provided services appropriate to their needs, both linguistically and culturally and not just in terms of areas of law,” she says.

“Today is the first time in nine years that our name, which is the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, and our status are actually aligned, otherwise we always thought we were a clinic – but we were always given money as a project.”

Lawyers doing legal aid work in the province will also see a raise in their hourly tariff, after an increase promised in the budget was approved last week.
The tariff rise was announced in April as part of the $51-million increase over three years allotted in the budget to legal aid, of which $19.57 million has been specifically set for the tariff increase.

Initial reports from the government following the budget said that the additional funding would mean a five-per-cent raise in the hourly legal aid tariff rate for Ontario lawyers this year for the first time in four years, increasing the top rate to about $94.50 an hour. However, at the time, lawyers noted that this seemed like a 2.35 per cent increase to the rate.

However, last week’s increase will see legal aid lawyers with 10 or more years of experience making $96.95 an hour, up five per cent from the previous amount of $92.34. Lawyers with less than four years of experience will see their hourly rate rise from $73.87 to $77.56. According to Legal Aid Ontario, the increase will be retroactive to legal aid certificates issued on or after April 1 and duty counsel services performed on or after that date.

Articling students doing legal aid work will see the largest percentage increase, with their hourly rate going up 100 per cent to $46 thanks to an allocation of $780,000, while the guaranteed daily rate for counsel doing legal aid work in remote northern areas has also increased five per cent to $840.

LAO says the five-per-cent tariff increase “makes legal aid work more financially feasible for lawyers and helps ensure that there are qualified legal aid lawyers available to help low-income people who require legal assistance.”

Paul Kowalyshyn, chairman of the County and District Law Presidents’ Association, says the increase is another step in the right direction and will maintain, if not increase, the ability of low-income Ontarians to access counsel of choice.

“I believe that it might actually work to stem the exodus of lawyers that are doing work on legal aid certificates. . . . I don’t believe that it will attract lawyers to doing it, but it will at least allow lawyers to maintain their practice.”
Kowalyshyn adds that CDLPA supports establishing a sustainable tariff review mechanism. He notes that it’s positive that this increase is over the next three years, the issue of pay is ongoing.

Other areas that the government has highlighted for the funding increase include providing legal assistance to vulnerable women and children involved in complex and serious family law cases, making legal aid accessible to more families by making changes to the financial eligibility test, to improve French-language services for poverty and clinic law services, and for legal aid’s big case management program.

The Provincial government’s $51-million investment in legal aid over the next three years will provide:
  • · $3.65 million for 2,250 more family certificates, many of which go to helping women and children, including survivors of domestic violence.
  • · $1 million for a one-time block of 500 “reserve” family law certificates to address fluctuations in local demand over a three-year period.
  • · $19.57 million for a five-per-cent increase to the tariff rates paid to private lawyers who provide legal services for low-income individuals in Ontario.
  • · $780,000 to increase the articling student tariff rate to encourage more lawyers to offer articling opportunities and a new generation of lawyers to join firms or established practices that include a legal aid component.
  • · $10.5 million additional investment in clinic law services to expand poverty law services, including funding for SALCO, new information-management project, improve French-language services, and increase operating budgets and front line clinic staff salaries.
  • · $15 million for the big case management program to ensure demand for coverage in complex and costly criminal trials does not compromise other services.
  • · $100,000 for the development of the new client financial eligibility test.
  • · $300,000 to exempt the Universal Child Care Benefit from the income of applicants for Legal Aid Ontario certificate services.
  • · $50,000 to Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO) to expand the “Six Languages Text and Audio Project.”
  • · $50,000 in one-time project funding to support research and develop a justice strategy to improve the delivery of legal aid services for the Aboriginal community.

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