What We Know About the Impact of the Cuts to Community Legal Clinics’ Funding: Are They Prologue to More Dramatic Change?

The impact of the Ford government’s 30% cut to legal aid has now been made explicit and that impact is to pare down the clinics’ contributions to access to justice. The cuts to the criminal justice system are important, but it is also crucial to understand how the cuts to the clinics affect those living in poverty in their everyday lives. (For the impact of cuts in other areas, see Legal Aid Ontario’s announcement.)

Some of the most important work the community legal clinics perform is to help those who cannot afford a lawyer navigate through the system of laws that do not affect those with a comfortable income, such as the welfare system, maintaining a roof over their head, obtaining compensation for injuries at work; they help seniors who find themselves enmeshed in the complicated care system, persons with disabilities denied help under the Ontario Disability Support Program, individuals living with HIV/AIDS, Indigenous people struggling with what seems and often is an alien system and more….

Help can take the form of consultation through to full representation. While there are other ways to obtain limited or temporary help, people, even though they may need it, who cannot obtain help from clinic workers who have developed an expertise in the law and the practice of different agencies and other bodies, will often have no option other than to fall back on self-help and this is not effective for them or for the legal system. They may be in many cases, people who have become lost in the system or for whom the system appears to provide no relief.

However, clinics bring their expertise to a broader understanding of legal problems, too. Because they see many similar cases, they are able to discern patterns and identify areas in which efforts into reforming the law rather than addressing each individual case would be more effective or advocate for changes that would improve the lives of more people. They also help to educate the public about their rights and how to obtain them through the legal system or even without having to access the legal system.

The community legal system is a coherent element in the larger legal system, taking the form of neighbourhood clinics that provide services in a particular cachment area, thus giving a street level face to legal help; speciality clinics that serve particular communities of people (such as seniors) across the province; and student clinics associated with law schools that also offer services to the public, as well as provide law students with the experience of working with marginalized communities. The breadth and depth of the community legal clinic system is unique in Canada in providing much needed services to populations that often have no or almost no other options.

But surely, like most institutions, the legal clinics can tighten their belts a bit without suffering too much damage or denying too many people the access to justice they might otherwise have been able to obtain? In fact, the cuts to the clinic system risk undermining their effectiveness by seeking to limit their work to the individual case loads. Of course, individual cases are crucial but this work is significantly enriched by the advocacy and law reform work that transcend the individual cases.

The speciality clinics were cut by 20% to 35%; Parkdale Community Legal Services, the longest established student clinic, has lost nearly half of its funding (45%); funding to Toronto clinics, in common with the treatment of Toronto in other areas (unilateral decisions over the size of municipal council, overturning of the transit plan, delayed for one year significant cuts to public health); and lesser cuts to other clinics. Some clinics, such as the Canadian Environmental Law Association, appear to have been particularly targetted; this clinic helps low income communities that have suffered from pollution. It will receive a 37% cut over two years. Other examples are advocacy centres for tenants and for income security.

These cuts are intended to force the clinics to focus on the individual case work which provides less of a challenge to government programs, something consistent with other Ford government initiatives (such as making it harder for people to bring lawsuits against the government about which I wrote, along with an earlier commentary on the legal aid cuts, here).

These targetted cuts are intended to minimize the impact on certain other clinics, such as those addressing particularly marginalized people (such as Indigenous and racialized people) and rural communities and purport to address changes in the neighbourhoods that clinics serve. The chair of the Legal Aid Ontario board diminishes the clinics’ advocacy role, but the vice president of the Clinic Law Services Division of Legal Aid Ontario also emphasizes that the clinics are independent and can decide how to spend their funding (see Law Times article for specific comments).

However, the ability of the clinics to absorb the cuts will be limited by other cuts or lack of anticipated increases to administrative needs and programs. For example, there will be no compensation increases and, as is often the case (and ironically in a system meant to increase access to justice), this will include no pay equity increases. The clinics will also have to find money in their existing decreased budgets for any increases imposed on them by third parties (such as landlords).

The cuts have the potential — and in fact, appear designed — to establish a new “status quo” for the clinics’ role in the legal system. A process for potentially affecting the community clinic system more significantly remains for the future: a comprehensive review of the Legal Aid Services Act, including service delivery models. This is noteworthy because the clinic system’s structure, such as being governed by independent community-based boards, is integral to its ability to service its clients in ways that reflect the clients’ needs. Poverty law takes a knowledge and expertise about communities that not all areas of law require. Thus the current cuts may be “merely” a facet in the approach to decrease government spending in areas such as education, health and legal services, among others, while increasing costs in other ways, or they may be the wedge into a more consequential revamping of the system that changes the nature of community legal clinics’ contribution to access to justice.

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