Legal clinics anxiously await outcome of funding reconsideration hearings

There was a $14.5 million cut to legal clinic budgets

Legal clinics anxiously await outcome of funding reconsideration hearings

Several Ontario legal aid clinics are in limbo this month, as they await decisions to reconsider cuts to their budgets. 

Clinics with permits under the Legal Aid Services Act recently had hearings to reconsider the impact of provincial cuts to Legal Aid Ontario’s overall budget. The steep cuts were spread across the organization, but included a $14.5 million cut to the clinic system.

For her clinic, the outcome of the hearings should become clear in December, says Johanna Macdonald, Clinic Director of Parkdale Community Legal Services. 

“We're looking forward to some kind of positive result. We recognize the government cut Legal Aid’s budget, and we have to take a share of that — we're dependent on legal aid for our funding, for our survival. But, you know, they shouldn't be cutting us 25 per cent and cutting the majority of clinics by 1 per cent or less. They have to treat the clinics fairly,” says Kenn Hale, director of legal and advocacy at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario. “The kind of work that we do is effective at getting results for low-income people, which is supposed to be the purpose of the legal aid system.” 

The $14.5 million legal clinic budget cuts in 2019 — which represented 21 per cent of the overall budget cut across LAO — included a $5.4 million reduction to individual clinics, out of which $2 million was pulled from Toronto-area clinics.

In addition to a heavier impact in Toronto, specialty clinics were also more severely impacted, with $2.26 million in funding pulled from community organizing, law reform, community development, tenant duty counsel programs and workers’ issues.

Lenny Abramowicz, Executive Director, Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario, says that he’s hoping the reconsideration hearings provide an opportunity for LAO leaders to take a “sober second look” at the impact the cuts have actually had. Any misinformation that underpinned the government’s 2019 budget could now be corrected by the current attorney general, Doug Downey, says Abramowicz.

“The reality is that if you cut all the clinics, it doesn’t matter if you get on the subway from Scarborough to go to a clinic in Etobicoke — you are still travelling to a clinic that has been cut,” he says. “And the specialty clinics support other clinics in the system.”

LAO leaders previously told Law Times that the budget revisions tried to avoid any impact to direct client services in clinic and certificate cuts, and took care to have a low impact on staffing at clinics and preserve service at rural or northern clinics.

Hale says that the issues faced by ACTO’s clients — such as fair housing — cannot be solved by simply going case by case. 

“What it really comes down to for us is the value of systemic work, versus the value of case-by-case representation,” says Hale. “Much of our systemic work — test cases, policy work, community development, training of lawyers and legal workers — is not case-by-case representation. It’s trying to prevent problems from happening rather than fighting through some unfair system to deal with the problems once they've already happened.” 

Macdonald says that while PCLS is prepared it implement a new round of budget cuts next year, it is hoping for a changed decision. Macdonald says that building a more equitable society is the “true essence” of access to justice, pointing to recent studies espousing the value of legal aid investments.

“Our funding agreements, and the clinic model, have both an upstream approach, as well as the more individual approach — accountability, enforcement of rights,” she says. “The upstream approach, as I’ll call it, is one that many researchers and government briefs alike would say is more effective to make a more healthy and just society. And it's an area that our clinic, Parkdale Legal, takes and prioritizes as important to the community . . . . the loss of funding for those services really is a great loss.”

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