While the federal government has committed funding needed to keep Legal Aid Ontario’s immigrant and refugee services open past November, lawyers say more needs to be done to address the problems that led to a possible shut down.
The federal government has pledged $7.1 million to LAO after the agency requested $11.7 million to help fill a budget gap following a $26-million deficit last December.
LAO officials largely blamed the deficit on an increase in demand for immigration and refugee services and threatened to suspend such services from November until the end of the fiscal year if the federal government did not come through with the funding.
Robert Blanshay, the chairman of the Ontario Bar Association’s citizenship and immigration law executive, applauds the federal government for providing the funding, but says more needs to be done to make sure LAO is not in the same situation next year.
“I don’t think there’s any cause for jumping for joy here,” says Blanshay. “I think we’ve still got a global issue and problem.”
He says that while there is no one solution, LAO, governments and stakeholders will need to figure out how to maintain sustainable and consistent funding for the agency’s services over years to come.
Jawad Kassab, the executive lead for LAO’s refugee and immigration program says LAO is looking into a number of internal initiatives to make its services more cost efficient, such as creating standard research packages and centralizing translation services.
He adds that all stakeholders will need to work together to make sure services are as cost effective and efficient as they can be as there is no way of knowing what demand will be.
“As you can imagine, we don’t know what is coming across the border next,” he says. “We don’t know whether we’re going have another surge given the situation in the United States.”
This summer, LAO considered suspending immigration services in July, but instead chose to stretch all services out to the end of October using $6 million in “deficit funds.”
While the $7.1 million LAO will receive is less than the $11.7 million the agency requested, Kassab says it will be enough to continue providing services through till the end of the fiscal year.
He says LAO will be able to make up the difference using some of a $13 million bump the agency received from the Law Foundation of Ontario that he says resulted from recent interest rate increases.
“We’ve had some very good luck in many ways,” he says. “The interest rate changes [were] not good for our mortgages, but very good for the law foundation revenues that legal aid gets.”
The cost of LAO’s refugee and immigration services grew to $27 million in 2016-2017 from $20 million in past years and is expected to reach $33.6 million in 2017-2018.
If the funding hadn’t come through, it would have meant 3,000 to 5,000 refugees and immigrants would have gone unrepresented in the province’s tribunals and courts, LAO officials say.
About 80 per cent of the lawyers that appear at the board are funded through legal aid. So it also would have increased delays at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, which is already struggling with the demand on its own resources, lawyers say.
“It really would have thrown the system into chaos to be honest,” says Kassab.
Blanshay says that while the funding came through in the end, it is a “bitter-sweet victory.” He says the issue is going to need a global solution to what is now a decades-old problem of not having enough funding for legal aid, and making sure the right people are receiving it.
“Hopefully we haven’t shuttled the problem over to July 2018 or Nov. 2018,” he says.