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Cuts to Legal Aid Ontario will be obvious post-pandemic

Ontario’s premier should make good his promise and guarantee legal aid, says Michael Spratt

Michael Spratt

It was almost a year ago that Doug Ford pulled the rug out from under Ontario’s legal aid system when he cruelly slashed Legal Aid Ontario's budget by $133 million. The 30-per-cent budget cut was immediate and without warning.

Then Ford lied to the public about access to legal aid services, telling Global News Radio that "if anyone needs support on legal aid, feel free to call my office. I will guarantee you that you will have legal aid."

None of that was true. Ford did not have the power to guarantee legal aid assistance and he never did help anyone get it.

Ford’s legal aid cuts resulted in many impoverished and marginalized Ontarians being denied legal representation and the shuttering of many community clinics. Legal Aid Ontario was forced to cut services and scores of defence counsel were driven out of private practice, leaving an unfilled access-to-justice gap.

This should not have come as any surprise. Reckless cuts were, after all, on-brand for a government that seemed to take delight in gutting important public services. Ford, you see, also cut $52 million in health policy and research funding, $6 million of funds to prevent workplace injury, and $1 billion from Toronto Public Health.

But, in the new COVID-19 reality, a year is a long time and all of this may seem like ancient history.

Despite putting us all in a more dangerous situation, Ford’s cuts are rarely mentioned when news outlets throw praise at him for the Ontario government’s COVID-19 response.

The CBC declared that “Doug Ford's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic draws praise from friends and foes.” The Washington Post mused that a crisis can forge great leaders. Doug Ford is showing that in Canada.” Even the Toronto Star, a paper that has never shown much love for the Ford government, gave “Kudos to Doug Ford for his leadership during this COVID-19 crisis.”

It is true that Ford has acted like a grownup during the pandemic, but now is not the time to give him a free pass. Ford’s cuts to programs that have proven essential during this public health emergency should be an albatross that hangs around his neck.

This is especially true when it comes to Ontario Legal Aid, the same organization that Ford threw under the bus a year ago is saving his rump today.

Despite the 30-per-cent budget cut, Legal Aid Ontario has expanded its services during the COVID-19 crisis, which has helped to prevent our jails from being devastated by the virus.

Since the pandemic began, Legal Aid Ontario has approved payments for additional work such as bail hearings and case management meetings, that are required as a result of the pandemic. They have expedited account payments to help defence lawyers, who were already under financial strain and risk bankruptcy during court shutdowns. Legal Aid also stepped up with funding to pay the volunteer criminal lawyers who kept the courts running in the early days of the crisis. And, most importantly, it has waived financial eligibility criteria for in-custody accused and automatically approved every bail funding request.

It is primarily through the work of defence lawyers and the expanded services offered by Legal Aid Ontario that we have been able to reduce the jail population and slow the spread of the virus behind bars.

Ford deserves no credit for the selfless work of those he spent the first half of his mandate undermining.

There are, however, storm clouds on the horizon.

Legal Aid Ontario will soon blow through its reduced annual budget because of its extraordinary COVID-19 expenditures. This will mean the cupboard will be bare to fund even the most essential justice services.

But it gets worse. With the collapse of legal aid, many criminal law firms and sole practitioners who didn’t qualify for government assistance and are without income during the COVID-19 crisis will be forced to shutter their offices. As Bill Trudell wrote, without immediate action COVID-19 could threaten an independent criminal defence bar.

The one-two punches delivered by Doug Ford’s funding cuts and COVID-19 could deliver generational damage to a fair and well-functioning justice system.

It is time for Ford to do what he promised he would do last year, and guarantee that anyone who needs legal aid will get it. It is time for Ford to restore and expand legal aid funding.

Legal Aid Ontario had Ford’s back during a time of crisis.

It is time for Ford to return the favour.

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