Legal Aid Ontario responds to the Toronto Star

Changes are coming for Legal Aid Ontario with clinics merging and the changing funding of civil cases

By Todd Harrison

On Tuesday April 13th, 2010

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In response to the Toronto Star article about changes in legal aid policies for civil cases and the future of the province’s legal clinics, Legal Aid Ontario has posted the complete text of its email exchange with the newspaper.

As mentioned yesterday in Court Reporter (and in a post on Slaw), the Star reported that an Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario memo had quoted Bob Ward, CEO of Legal Aid Ontario, as saying that fewer clinics would “make more sense.” The Star also reported that LAO spokesperson Kristian Justesen replied that there was “no plan or idea” to move forward with merging clinics. The LAO post elaborates:

There is no plan or idea that there would be a reduction in the number of clinics. Mr. Ward advised representatives of the ACLCO of this at a meeting on March 26, 2010. In the last three years, LAO has even added to the clinic community with funding in 2007 for SALCO.

Several clinics have been involved in mergers that have resulted in improved client service and less administrative overhead. These mergers have gone smoothly. LAO has facilitated these processes. There has also been unofficial discussion for some time within the clinic community itself that other mergers should be considered to ensure better service. LAO is not involved in these discussions but would assist if asked.

With regard to the funding of civil cases, LAO confirms that the availability of contingency fees has affected a change in policy, but that the change will have little effect:

In keeping with LAO’s commitment to ensure maximize the use of public funds, LAO has updated its policy on civil litigation/other civil coverage. Beginning 1 April, 2010 civil certificates will continue to be issued for O’Connor/Mills applications and Test cases (as approved by the LAO Group Applications and Test Cases Committee. Civil opinion certificates, most of which never get past the opinion letter stage because they lack merit, will be eliminated.

Legal Aid Ontario issues more than 100,000 certificates to low-income people each year, 600 of which, about a 1/2 percent of all certificates issued, are for civil matters not traditionally covered by Legal Aid Ontario. The majority of these certificates are for opinion letters and not full representation.

Toronto lawyers Marshall Swadron and Paul Copeland told the Star that this decision will have broader repercussions than the LAO is anticipating, noting that it could affect cases that have a low monetary award or require the testimony of an expert witness.