Legal aid investments save governments money all over the world, Canadian researchers find

‘Unlike health and education and policing, justice is not getting the airtime it needs,’ says researcher

Legal aid investments save governments money all over the world, Canadian researchers find
Trevor Farrow

Money spent on justice programs pays off in terms of economic gains and efficiencies — as shown by evidence both in Canada and around the world, the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice said in a report released on Oct. 17

The in-depth report offers case studies on legal aid funding in Australia, England and Wales, as well as the use of paralegal services in South Africa and social investments in Bangladesh. 

It also looks at the use of pro bono funding in Ontario as well as studying the return on investment of justice funding in states across the U.S. The data zooms in on areas such as youth justice and family law.

“I think this report provides a huge amount of evidence to make the point that investing in justice is a very smart economic decision,” says Trevor Farrow, professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and chair of the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice. 

Farrow says he began compiling the research, alongside Canadian Forum on Civil Justice Director Lisa Moore, well before Ontario’s recent cuts to legal aid funding. But, he says, the research will hopefully provide context for policy makers as they make future funding decisions.

“Unlike health and education and policing, justice is not getting the airtime it needs in order to gain the attention of the public and our public representatives,” he says.  “If you look at the recent federal election, we don’t see access to justice as a major talking point on any of the parties’ platforms. That’s got to change. If we want justice to be an issue people care about, we need to get it front and center in everyday discussions.” 

Return on investment

For example, the report highlights a New York-based study which found US$5 was generated for every US$1 invested in civil justice services that reduce the burden on the courts and help address the justice gap. In Philadelphia, the return was even more dramatic: when providing legal representation to low-income tenants in eviction cases, the return on investment was $12.74 for every $1 spent, the report said. In Florida, day-to-day legal assistance to low-income and vulnerable persons with civil justice needs had a total economic impact of 7.19 times the funds invested.

“There are many people — including the most vulnerable — who cannot access meaningful justice and social services. And that costs them in terms of their well being,” he says. “And it also costs the state a huge amount of money in terms of knock-on costs around . . . . use of other social services like social assistance and Employment Assistance, and our health care system. For all of those individual and collective economic reasons, it makes huge sense to invest in justice.” 

More data needed

One issue highlighted by the report is that — while Canada is a leader in some aspects of the world’s access-to-justice conversation — more data is needed locally. 

“This is not simply an Ontario story or a Canadian story. This is a worldwide story. I think the evidence is starting to be overwhelmingly clear that we need to start taking this issue seriously,” he says. “There is a there is an increasing movement around the world to bring access to justice forward as a political discussion.” 

While the political narrative may paint lawyers as “part of the problem,” Farrow says the research shows that lawyers are really part of the solution. 

“Individual lawyers have to see themselves as part of this overall justice story,” he says. “We need to get lawyers engaged in this bigger access to justice conversation . . . . it’s an individual thing and it’s a collective thing. When we talk about investing in justice, it’s the right thing to do. Many, many people are struggling to make ends meet and are crushed by legal issues every day.”

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