Suggestions for Justice reform in Ontario

Legislative issues,Civil liberties,People
| 26 June 2022

If it takes a special kind of politician to fail upward, Doug Ford should be considered very special.

Earlier this month, after four years of scandal, which included invoking the notwithstanding clause, cutting social programs, gutting legal aid funding, leaning into patronage appointments, increasing school class sizes, and ineptly overseeing a humanitarian tragedy in Ontario’s long-term care homes, Ontarians re-elected Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservatives with an even larger majority.

Congratulations.

After Ford won power in 2018, I suggested some improvements he could make to the justice system, which would bring efficiencies, cut costs, and increase fairness in our courts.

I suggested that Ford expand legal aid services, cancel the construction of a new jail, increase the availability of rehabilitative programs, and modernize the court system.

It seems that Ford didn’t take my suggestions to heart.

Instead of expanding and enhancing legal aid, Ford slashed funding but incongruously told the public that anyone who needed legal aid would get it. That promise was, of course, a lie. Ford never followed through on his legal aid guarantee.

The poverty line in Ontario hovers around $20,000, but the annual income cut off for legal aid eligibility is less than $17,000. This rule means that the poorest in our communities – even when facing a possible jail sentence ­– are denied legal assistance, resulting in unfairness in our courts and a glut of resource-intensive self-represented accused.

Spending more on legal aid would save the province money and make the justice system fairer, but Ford chose cuts and lies.

For the briefest of moments, when he mothballed construction of a new jail in Ottawa, it seemed like Ford took to heart the warning about building new prisons.

But then, in the next breath, he announced that he would build not one but two new correctional facilities.

And while Ford was pouring money into building more cages, he did nothing to increase the availability of in-custody rehabilitative programs or improve the abhorrent provincial jail conditions. The Ontario Superior Court called these conditions “inhumane” and indicated they “failed to comport with basic standards of human decency.”

Sure, Ford did modernize the operation of our courts – but to be fair, he was forced. All it took to digitize courtroom procedures and eliminate redundant in-person court appearances for routine matters was, you know, a global pandemic. Given a choice between no functioning justice system and using email instead of fax machines, Ford chose email.

Well done.

So, keeping in mind my track record of success in influencing provincial justice policy, here are a few suggestions for Ford to ignore over the next four years.

First, the government should act quickly to reverse course and enact legislation to enhance police transparency and accountability measures.

When Ontarians elected Ford in 2018, he quickly revoked the proclamation of the Safer Ontario Act – legislation that modestly increased oversight of the police. That was a mistake. Under conditions fostered by Ford’s blind support for the boys in blue, there is no meaningful oversight of Ontario’s police forces. The result is racism, discrimination, and injustice.  

Second, Ford must continue to make justice system modernizations a priority.

As far as our courts’ administration is concerned, COVID is over, and it’s time to return to many inefficient, old-fashioned practices. Many of Ontario’s courthouses again insist on in-person appearances and filing hard copies of the material. Compounding the frustrating return to the fax machine, the procedures in each courthouse are different, resulting in confusion and further inefficiencies.

COVID may have forced the justice system into modern times, but it’s up to Ford to ensure we don’t slip back into the dark ages.

Additionally, Ontario must take immediate steps to combat the deadly overdose epidemic.

With the Federal government dragging its feet on decriminalization and safe supply, the provinces must pick up the slack. They should increase funding for treatment in our jails and communities. But that is not enough. Ford should urgently follow British Columbia’s lead and apply for a Health Canada exemption to decriminalize possession of illicit drugs for personal use.

And finally, it is not too late for Ford to reverse course on legal aid funding and make good on his promise that anyone who needs legal aid will get it.

It is high time for Ford to make a choice. Is he in favour of an efficient, modern and fair justice system for the people? Or will we suffer another four years of unfairness, inefficiencies, overdoses, death, and police abuse?