As a result of the provincial election this past week, the majority Ontario Liberal Party government will reintroduce the budget they had proposed which had triggered the election. There are a number of features in this budget which focus on the legal system.
The first is increases to legal aid, by increasing the threshold for income eligibility, an increase that has not occurred since the 1990s. This initiative has been commended by the Criminal Lawyers Association,
“We applaud the government’s recognition of the importance of Ontario’s legal aid system,” said Anthony Moustacalis, President of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association. “This investment will allow an additional one million low income Ontarians to qualify for legal aid services. We know from experience that legal aid is an important factor in access to justice for those with limited means who find themselves in the criminal justice system. By issuing 75,000 additional Legal Aid certificates each year for low-income Ontarians, the government is helping to meet the real needs of the vulnerable through LAO’s certificate program, which gives clients the right to counsel of choice.”
The second major justice issue in the budget are much needed improvements to the family law system through amendments to the Family Law Act, Family Responsibility and Support Arrears Enforcement Act, and the Ministry of Revenue Act. The family law system has been an area of much concern in Ontario, with soaring self-representation rates and the subject of public protests. The new system would be launched in 2015 to provide a centralized and automated system to change child support amounts without having to go to court.
The third justice initiative to be undertaken by the province is a new courthouse which will consolidate five locations of the Ontario Court of Justice, saving over $700 million over 30 years. The project will be accomplished through an Alternative Financing and Procurement (AFP) arrangement, creating a public-private partnership. The AFP model was used to create the Durham Regional Courthouse in 2011.
According to The Globe,
…the government has a location in mind, according to provincial officials. The new courthouse is expected to be on provincially owned land just north of the Superior Court of Justice building at 361 University Ave., near Dundas Street.
The site is currently a surface parking lot.
The president of the Toronto Lawyers’ Association said the cramped and “dismal” conditions at some of Toronto’s court facilities – especially those in strip malls in the inner suburbs – have been a long-time concern for the city’s legal community.
Of course there are plenty in the legal community who will say that legal aid is still not being increased enough, that for more wide-spread legal reforms are needed, and capital investitures are needed to modernize our courthouses into the digital era. But the focus on our legal system in this budget, and the majority mandate provided by this election to execute the plan, can be a refreshing sign for those looking for change.