‘Terrific day’ for Ontario legal aid

Ontario lawyers have awoken to major changes to legal aid with Legal Aid Ontario announcing new certificate coverage in a range of areas from criminal to family to refugee law.

Thomas Nye“It’s a terrific day,” says Nye Thomas, LAO’s director general of policy and strategic research.

“Virtually all of them come into effect immediately,” he says of the changes, noting the only exception involves the changes with respect to bail matters.

“However, they will be retroactive to June 8,” he adds.

With the Ontario government pumping more than $96 million into LAO over three years, the agency is moving ahead with an expansion of certificate coverage to provide assistance in a greater range of areas. This is in addition to the series of increases to the income eligibility threshold that started taking effect last year.

In criminal law, for example, LAO will now issue certificates based on criteria besides the loss-of-liberty test that considers an applicant’s likelihood of going to jail. Under the changes, certificates will be available to those meeting the income eligibility criteria who are facing secondary consequences of a criminal conviction such as a risk of deportation; immediate loss of public housing; or a significant impact on access to family and child custody.

In addition, LAO will expand coverage for those meeting the income criteria with no prior criminal record in situations where the Crown is seeking a conviction or discharge and the defendant is First Nation, Métis, or Inuit; has a mental illness; or is a victim of domestic violence charged with an offence related to a partner.

When it comes to bail, the changes include providing for enhanced certificates for reviews that will expand the number of hours lawyers have to challenge bail orders and improper conditions imposed on those released.

In the area of family law, the changes will expand coverage for complex cases. According to Thomas, they refine the definition of complexity to deem certain matters, such as those dealing with applications under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, to be “presumptively complex.”

As well, they’ll include provisions for what Thomas calls “client complexity criteria” to define complexity on the basis of client characteristics such as literacy issues or language barriers.

Additional changes will provide for certificates in mental-health proceedings to assist those meeting the income eligibility criteria who wish to bring guardianship applications before the Consent and Capacity Board or the Superior Court.

In addition, the changes provide for expanded coverage in refugee matters and domestic violence cases. They’ll also provide for targeted services for aboriginal clients and expand LAO’s public-interest criteria for test cases that address systemic issues affecting the poor.

“The old test-case criteria were pretty narrow,” says Thomas, noting it will now be possible to provide a certificate in a test case with significant implications for the poor even if the representative client doesn’t meet the financial eligibility criteria.

“We are growing the program to match the funding,” says Thomas, adding there may be further changes as the funding continues to grow — including another $67 million announced by the province in its spring budget for 2017-18 — and LAO assesses the impact of the expanded services so far.

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