More funding needed for legal aid amidst pandemic, letters say

Interest rate cuts, end of federal funds compound pressure on legal aid providers

More funding needed for legal aid amidst pandemic, letters say

Legal aid lawyers are seeing client needs escalate amid the COVID pandemic — despite a pullback from three key funders of legal aid services in Ontario, according to two letters sent to regulators. 

Two letters from the Alliance for Sustainable Legal Aid says more funding is needed for Legal Aid Ontario. The letters, addressed to Attorney General of Ontario Doug Downey and Minister of Justice David Lametti, note that one of the major funders of Legal Aid Ontario is the Law Foundation of Ontario. 

“The foundation’s revenue is composed of interest on the trust accounts of lawyers and paralegals, and is dependent primarily on interest rates and the balances in mixed-trust accounts,” said the letters, signed by Lenny Abramowicz on behalf of the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario, Criminal Lawyers Association, Family Lawyers Association, Federation of Ontario Law Associations, Law Society of Ontario, Mental Health Legal Committee, Ontario Bar Association, Refugee Lawyers Association and The Advocates’ Society. 

“We expect the foundation’s financial situation to be drastically different this year than it was last year. Recently, the Bank of Canada cut its key interest rate to assist the country with the economic downturn resulting from COVID-19. . . . Accordingly, the foundation’s contribution could fall from a high of over $91 million in 2019/20 to less than $30 million in 2020/21.” 

A reduced payment from the LFO would come on the heels of the Ontario government’s 30 percent cut to its transfer payment from last year, said the letters. Even as funding has gone down, a shift toward remote legal services (brought on by the pandemic) has required LAO providers increase capacity, Abramowicz wrote to Downey. 

LAO has made more family staff lawyers available and waived financial eligibility requirements for summary legal advice.

“Beyond the problems presented by backlogs, we expect to see an increased need for legal assistance as certain issues become exacerbated by the current crisis. Many workers, who have been laid off, need assistance to ensure they receive government benefits and other entitlements,” the letter to Downey said. 

“As many tenants struggle to pay rent due to loss of income, legal assistance will be required to help them avoid eviction. Because of lockdown conditions, we have seen an increase in domestic violence and familial breakdowns. The onset of an economic downturn can also lead to increased crime rates and disputes related to mental health and addictions.”

At the same time, last year’s federal payment of $25.7 million toward legal aid services has now been exhausted, the letter to Lametti said.

“Without an immediate injection of additional funds, services for immigrants and refugees will be drastically cut,” said the Alliance for Sustainable Legal Aid of the federal funding.

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