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Legal Aid cuts hit Ottawa

Last April, the Doug Ford government slashed funding to Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) by $133 million. The 30-per-cent budget cut was immediate – there was no notice – and everyone knew the cruel cuts would send shockwaves through the justice system.

And it seems those shockwaves of chaos and injustice have finally hit the Ottawa courthouse.

But first, a bit of context about legal aid.

A well-funded legal aid system makes both economic and social sense. The World Bank found that failing to properly fund legal aid programs does not actually save money; it only shifts costs. The Canadian Forum on Civil Justice came to a similar conclusion, finding that “A growing body of empirical research reveals that investing in accessible and affordable justice results in monetary, personal, social and other benefits that outweigh the costs of the investment.”

In simple terms, a well-functioning legal aid system, where the poorest and most marginalized are provided basic legal services at a vastly reduced cost, saves money in the long run. More importantly, ensuring that everyone, especially the poor, have legal representation is an important bulwark against wrongful convictions and banana-republic-style justice.

So, if you are tough-on-crime, legal aid funding means a quick and efficient justice system with fewer cases thrown out of court because of unreasonable delay. If you are fiscally conservative, legal aid funding means reduced administrative costs and financial savings. And if you are concerned about access to justice and procedural fairness, legal aid means that no one will rot in jail without representation.

A well-funded legal aid system is a win-win proposition. But under the Ford government we are all losing – especially the poor.

Because of Ford’s cuts, LAO is now funding fewer cases. This means that some of Ottawa’s most marginalized and impoverished people will now face prosecution, conviction, and the possibility of jail time without the assistance of a lawyer.

The degree of civilization in a society can be judge by entering its prisons, or in Ottawa’s case by walking into video bail court – any day at 9:30 a.m. – where the unjust way we are treating our most vulnerable is on full display in open court.

When an accused is arrested, there are two possibilities: they can be released pending trial or held in custody for a bail hearing. It is disproportionately the poor and marginalized who are held in jail. Those who are too poor to pay bail, or don’t have family connections, or lack stable housing or employment frequently enjoy the presumption of innocence from the inside of a cold jail cell.

After Ford’s cuts, not only did LAO stop funding lawyers to conduct bail hearings but they also pulled all staff from Ottawa’s video court where these impoverished but presumed innocent people make their frequent court appearances while waiting for bail or trial.

The result is that, on a daily basis, dozens of in-custody accused, who cannot afford a lawyer, have no representation in court at all. Legal aid won’t pay counsel to attend the video court and duty counsel won’t show up.

The government has plenty of money – to pay judges to adjourn the case, to pay Crown Attorneys to oppose bail, and pay court staff to fill out the paper work. But they cry poor and say there are no crumbs left over for anyone to advocate for the accused and prevent injustice.

The inevitable result of Ford’s cuts and LAO’s actions is chaos in Ottawa’s bail courts, increasing justice system costs, courtroom inefficiencies, and overflowing jails – all which was substantiated in this week’s damning Report from Ontario’s auditor general.

Perhaps Ford thinks that a fight with the poorest and most vulnerable Ontarians – because that is who depends on the legal aid – will be an easy victory. It is easier, after all, to punch down. But the administration of justice and Legal Aid Ontario should know better and not become a willing pawn in government’s plan to starve our courts of justice.

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