Another Threat to Student Legal Clinics – This Time From Ontario

The Ontario government dropped a bombshell on its legal aid system in its April 11 budget, hitting it with a 30% funding cut, with more to come in future years.

The province spoke of transforming the legal aid system. However, there is no underlying plan from the province – simply cuts. Legal Aid Ontario has to move quickly to implement the cuts, which apply to the 2019-20 budget. At the time of writing, it is unclear where the cuts will be made, although refugee services will end.

The impact on community clinics and student legal clinics is not yet clear. Legal Aid Ontario CEO David Field stated that LAO will, over the coming days and weeks, determine the steps it will take to implement the cuts. However, it appears likely that all clinics will be subject to cuts.

What will be the results?

  • Low income persons such as single parents, seniors, and people with mental health challenges will face evictions by unscrupulous landlords;
  • Newcomers working in non-unionized low-waged jobs who are exploited by their employer will likely be turned away when they seek help;
  • Refugees fleeing persecution will not get help from Ontario;
  • Without legal aid representation, more self-represented persons will appear in our court system, causing more delays.

As mentioned earlier, the impact on student legal clinics in Ontario law schools is not yet known. Student clinics have been facing extraordinary external pressures in the past year:

  • In 2018 the federal government introduced Bill C-75, which would prohibit law students from appearing in criminal courts for low income persons unless their province passed an order-in-council. This provision is confusing as law student have successfully handled criminal cases for decades. The Bill is now before the Senate and a final vote is expected in mid-May.
  • Ontario student clinics rely on student fees as part of their budget. In return, they provide free legal services for students. Generally all university student fees of any kind have been mandatory. The province has decided to make student fees opt-out unless they are for “essential” services. Law clinics do not qualify; interestingly, varsity athletics are considered by the province to be an “essential” service.
  • Legal aid funding constitutes a large majority of funding for Ontario student clinics. The 30% cut will result in fewer services offered and/or fewer low income persons served.

Student legal clinics have been part of the legal community for 50 years. At my own clinic at Western Law, our students have helped over 25,000 clients over the years. The clinics have served as the “cradle” of the criminal defence bar and those lawyers who have served in the legal aid system. Clinics give law students their first taste of that it is really like to be a lawyer with real clients and appearing in front of a real judge.

What kind of clients do student clinics serve? Here are some personal examples I have seen:

  • Persons with mental health issues being evicted by a landlord.
  • Single mothers seeking custody and child support.
  • The elderly or the ill wanting to make a will. Students dealing with bud bug infestations in their apartment.
  • Women who guarantee a boyfriend’s debt and are being pursued by collection agencies after the boyfriend defaults.
  • A student wrongfully charged with a criminal offence by an overly-zealous police officer.

Student clinics serve those persons in our community who would otherwise fall between the cracks in our legal system. Our students learn compassion and the need to do good. That makes them better lawyers when they launch their careers.

Justice is one of the foundations of our democracy. A foundation of democracy should not be cut because it costs so much. Can it be reformed? Of course. And it has. Legal Aid Ontario has been making changes for years to provide better service at a lower cost. That is the kind of change the provincial government should seek: reform and improvement, not destruction.

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