Future of Legal Clinics Uncertain
Ontario’s community legal clinics were notified of their 2019-20 funding by Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) on June 12, 2019. Most legal clinics, including North Peel & Dufferin Community Legal Services, had their funding reduced by a small amount (roughly 1% of total funding). Much deeper cuts are expected next year and the year after. Funding for salaries (which are already far below those of LAO lawyers) is frozen and there is no funding to meet clinics’ pay equity obligations.
Legal clinics in Toronto were hit much harder than most clinics and some specialty legal clinics with significant work on law reform and test cases were singled out for large cuts. All legal clinics were told to focus on individual client service and public legal education and avoid spending time on law reform, test cases and community development. The Legal Aid Services Act states that clinics are to engage in all of these activities.
The government has also announced a review of Legal Aid Ontario and of community legal clinics. The terms of reference were released on June 12th. A “key goal” is a “Streamlined ‘one system’ approach to service delivery”. That sounds an awful lot like an outcome of the review has been decided before the review has even begun. The review will be conducted quickly (finishing next March) and no public report will be produced.
The Chair of the LAO board, Charles Harnick, has been quoted as saying “"Our feeling is that there's very little more that we can do on the clinic side right now. The only other way to establish real savings in the area of clinics is around some kind of restructure.”
A great strength of Ontario’s community legal clinics is that they are independent, community based organizations. Each one is a non-profit corporation with a community board of directors. Much of our work involves challenging governmental actions, whether we are fighting for a single mom’s entitlement to Ontario Works, appealing a denial of Ontario Disability Support Program benefits, or lobbying the government to change unfair tenancy laws. Our independence from Legal Aid Ontario, and the support that our community base provides, allows us to fearlessly advocate for our clients, whether on an individual level or through law reform efforts and test cases.
The terms of reference of the review, and the comments by LAO’s Chair, suggest that our community based independence may be in danger. This is an even greater threat than the budget cuts.
Which brings us back to the question: “why does the government need to slash funding for community legal clinics and re-structure them in order to achieve millions of dollars in savings?” Fiscal responsibility is one thing – this sort of slash and burn is another. The reason it is “required” is that 86% of the budget reduction for the Ministry of the Attorney General this year is coming from Legal Aid Ontario – virtually all of that Ministry’s budget reduction (a mere 7% of its budget) is on the backs of low income Ontarians.