LAO cutbacks raise alarm

From Rainy River to Cornwall, Ont., Legal Aid Ontario’s plan to phase out the application process for assistance through its local offices is sparking harsh criticism.

“I don’t want to use the word that starts with ‘trans’ and ends with ‘formation.’ I want to speak plainly. It’s cutbacks,” says Etienne Saint-Aubin, executive director of the S D & G Legal Clinic in Cornwall.

LAO is in the process of a makeover by placing legal aid offices in an additional 17 criminal court locations in Ontario. In doing so, it will eliminate some of the existing local LAO offices off-site.
 “I share the same concern as many of the other lawyers,” says Saint-Aubin. “We’re going to be in for a bumpy ride.”

Emery Ruff, a lawyer in Rainy River who gets about half of his criminal law business from legal aid certificates, is also convinced his work will be more difficult when the LAO offices in his district amalgamate to span a larger region.  

“The people at the clinic are great and if they’re cut out, things will not be able to work smoothly,” he says.
As part of the change, LAO has set up a toll-free number that will offer assistance and allow clients to apply for legal aid from Monday to Friday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. in 120 languages. It has also put up a revised web site with more accessible information and a simplified online application process. 

Bob Ward, LAO’s president and CEO, said in a press release that the organization’s new telephone and online processes aim to provide a quicker and more convenient way to use its services.

“Legal Aid Ontario is committed to the use of innovation and technology to improve client services, focus resources more efficiently, and support justice system reforms,” the release said.
But, Ruff, for one, doesn’t agree.

“The telephone system will work like any other telephone system. You’ll be on hold, you’ll be pushing buttons, and no one will care,” he says.
“There’s going to be a lot more frustration. If you ask me, the whole thing is a screw-up.”

LAO, however, has maintained it was legal aid clients who asked for the technological changes as a way of having a more convenient way of applying for assistance from home. Saint-Aubin, though, says LAO is making the changes based on inaccurate information.

“Who is it that legal aid serves? If you’re running a store, you have to know who your customers are,” he says.
“The people who use legal aid generally are a very high representation of functionally illiterate persons. These are not the people who are doing online shopping at Holt Renfrew. It’s not the right way to do things.”

The moves come just a few months after the government announced plans to increase funding for legal aid in order to “serve more people” and make a “broader range of information available with more upfront access to it.”

Part of LAO’s current plan, though, calls for amalgamating some regions within a greater geographical area. With that will come more challenges, says Robert Barr, a lawyer in Brockville, Ont. He points out, for example, that Brockville’s area director for LAO was local lawyer Robert Wilson. He had held the position for more than 25 years until he died in a tragic accident last year.

“Wilson knew everybody and not just the lawyers,” says Barr. “He knew the accused and their families, too. He was really in touch with the needs of the community. He was someone we could approach informally.”

Leslie Ault, who is also from the area, has been the acting area director in the Lanark, Leeds, and Grenville region, but that position is set to disappear as the legal aid office gets set to take its direction from the area director in Ottawa.

“The new director can’t possibly have the same connection as they did,” says Barr.
The proposed elimination of the local area committees that hear appeals from people who have been declined a certificate is also a concern for Barr.

“I fear that the changes will compel persons seeking redress to travel to Ottawa to make their pitch to a centralized area committee,” says Barr. “For many, that would be an undue hardship.”

But in e-mailed responses to questions on the issue, LAO said some of the predicted difficulties wouldn’t be an issue as experience has shown that having criminal defendants and family law litigants travel back and forth from court to a legal aid office creates delays in the justice system.

Nevertheless, while in places like Chatham and Sarnia, Ont., going back and forth from the legal aid office to the courthouse would be a strenuous hike for someone without a vehicle, in other cities they’re very close. In Cornwall, for example, the legal aid office is about 100 metres from the courthouse. Meanwhile, in Fort Frances, Ont., the office is just three blocks from the court.

But for Barr, the main concern isn’t the location of a legal aid office but that there is always someone there.
“I’m not opposed to closing down the office as long as you have consistent staffing at the courthouse [office] all the time. Otherwise, we’ll see huge delays for clients trying to get certificates. It’s important that an accused person can meet with someone just to talk about the application.”

But so far, the plan to provide the same amount of staff at the courthouse as previously existed elsewhere isn’t likely to happen. “The functions of some positions will change, some positions will no longer be required, and some new positions will be needed,” LAO said in its response.

While LAO wouldn’t confirm precise numbers, Cornwall’s office is expected to close, reduce its four workers to one, and then move that lone employee into space at the courthouse, according to recent media reports.

There are also reports of staffing cuts in Sarnia. At the same time, LAO has amalgamated its Parry Sound, Bracebridge/Muskoka, and Barrie, Ont., offices into the central district, meaning the Bracebridge office is also facing possible changes.

In the end, Barr’s other big concern is whether the new way of delivering services will work.
“The local practitioners will adapt. My main concern is for the local people.”

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