LAO backtracks on clinic funding cuts

Amid talk of funding cuts to legal clinics — and a quick reversal of that decision — the Ontario government is reaffirming its $30-million investment into access to justice for the province’s poorest.

The Ministry of the Attorney General confirmed last week it is allocating “$30 million over three years to improve delivery of front line client services through Family Law Service Centres and community and legal clinics across the province.”

The cash was first announced in the provincial government budget in May. But recently, Legal Aid Ontario told legal clinics it would make a $1-million cut to the core budgets before swiftly rescinding those cuts amid heavy criticism.

Clinics decried the proposed cuts, arguing the LAO should stick to the two-year safe period agreement it made with them. For its part, LAO said the safe period shouldn’t apply when its own funding from the province falls short.

LAO had to resort to chopping funding for legal clinics as, a result of a $3-million reduction to its overall transfer payment, which was detailed in this year’s budget, says LAO spokesman Kristian Justesen.

“The $1-million reduction to core funding, [which has now been rescinded], was necessary to ensure that LAO balances its operational funding for 2013-/14,” he adds.

Despite the back and forth of the last few weeks, the $30 million announced during the budget “is intact,” Justesen tells Law Times.

Ministry of the Attorney General communications officer Brendan Crawley also says the government did not reconsider its funding decision between May and now.

The decision not to go forward with the cuts came after MAG stepped in with additional one-time funding, says Justesen.

“This reprieve gives LAO and clinics more time to consider how to best make changes to improve the delivery of clinic law services,” he says.

Of the $30-million funding to legal aid, 30 per cent will go into increasing “the capacity of community and legal clinics to meet their clients’ needs,” according to the ministry.

“This investment could include new or enhanced services that help clients with poverty law, housing, mental health, and domestic violence,” it said, adding, “Community legal clinics are an important part of the legal aid system, and this funding will help these clinics better respond to the needs of vulnerable people.”

The rest of the funding will go into supporting Legal Aid Ontario’s Family Law Service Centres, which provide legal advice, duty counsel, and mediation services to low-income families.

At the time the Ontario government announced its new $30-million funding for legal aid, some in the legal profession said it was welcome, but doubted it was enough.

“Any increase for legal aid is welcome. However, given the extent to which it is underfunded, this allocation is not adequate,” said Norm Boxall, president of the Criminal Lawyers Association.

“The financial eligibility threshold for legal aid filters out too many people who are in need,” he added, describing legal aid as a system “strained to a breaking point.”

The $30 million comes alongside a $150 million over four years investment in legal aid the government announced in 2009.

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