Ontario’s top judges slam Ford government over cuts to legal aid
Tues., Sept. 10, 2019
Ontario’s most senior judges delivered a rare public rebuke Tuesday of the Ford
government’s cuts to legal aid funding.
Speaking at the annual opening of the courts ceremony in Toronto, Chief Justice
of Ontario George Strathy said that cutting legal aid dollars — which could lead
to a greater number of individuals having to represent themselves in court —
would not actually save money in the long run.
“It increases trial times, places greater demands on public services, and
ultimately delays and increases the cost of legal proceedings for everyone,”
Strathy said. “We can also say that public confidence in the administration of
justice is enhanced when the most vulnerable in our society are given a voice,
so they can truly be heard.”
The Ford government slashed legal aid funding in its spring budget by 30 per
cent, a reduction of about $133 million from the anticipated provincial funding
envelope of $456 million.
“Recent and scheduled reductions in funding of legal aid are of great concern to
those involved in the justice system, including many of those in this
courtroom,” Strathy said at Toronto’s 361 University Ave. courthouse.
He was speaking at the opening of the courts alongside Associate Chief Justice
Frank Marrocco of the Superior Court of Justice and Chief Justice Lise
Maisonneuve of the Ontario Court of Justice.
The ceremony, which takes place every September, is an opportunity for the
judges to talk about the state of affairs in their respective courts and comment
on issues affecting the justice system. There’s no actual “opening” — the courts
remain in operation all year long.
The legal aid cuts are having an impact across the justice sector. In response
to the cuts, Legal Aid Ontario, the independent body that manages the province’s
legal aid plan, made changes that include requiring publicly
funded lawyers known as duty counsel to conduct nearly all bail hearings for
unrepresented individuals, rather than funding private criminal lawyers.
Lawyers have harshly criticized the changes made in bail court, saying duty
counsel could be overburdened with an increasingly heavy caseload, resulting in
legally innocent individuals spending extra time in custody before a decision is
made on their bail.
The changes have also meant that services provided by duty counsel in other
areas of criminal court have had to be reduced, the union representing duty
counsel has said.
“An effective, accessible justice system depends on a robust legal aid program,”
Maisonneuve said. “The unintended consequences to the reduced legal aid funding
causes us concern.”
Maisonneuve’s court hears the bulk of criminal matters and a large portion of