Recent cuts in the Ontario budget to legal aid are trickling down locally, but the full picture of that impact won’t be clear for a few more weeks.
According to the CBC, Legal Aid Ontario got hit with a major cut in the recent Ontario budget as the provincial government pulled $133 million in funding and said the organization could no longer use provincial funds for refugee and immigration cases.
The cut in funding accounts for roughly 30 per cent of Legal Aid Ontario’s annual budget.
Michael Hefferon, executive director of Community Legal Clinic - Simcoe, Haliburton, Kawartha Lakes, headquartered in Orillia, says Legal Aid Ontario passes on funding directly to legal clinics like his around the province.
“It’s concerning. It’s frankly, disappointing,” said Hefferon of the cuts. “Over the past few years, financial eligibility guidelines have increased so we were able to serve more people. The people we serve are not going to be able to afford a lawyer. So, our services have been expanding.
“This appears to be halting that upward direction we were going in,” he added.
Want to help stop budget cuts to legal aid? Here's how. pic.twitter.com/6j1YwbvZhV— CommunityLegalClinic (@CLCSimcoeHalCKL) April 29, 2019
Legal Aid Ontario issues legal aid certificates for family and criminal law matters, provides duty counsel services for both criminal and family courts and funds independent legal clinics.
There are about 74 legal clinics in Ontario.
The Community Legal Clinic - Simcoe, Haliburton, Kawartha Lakes is operated as an independent non-profit corporation based out of its Colborne Street office in Orillia, but also has satellite offices in Barrie, Midland and Collingwood.
“Most of our funding comes from Legal Aid Ontario,” said Hefferon. “They give us a budget every year that we have to work within.”
He said his clinic received word on Monday morning that $15 million will be cut directly from the legal clinic system budget overall.
He added that this accounts for about 16 per cent of their overall budget, which was expected to be $93 million this year. The overall budget will instead be $78 million.
Hefferon says his clinic hasn’t yet been told how that will affect his budget or any of the other clinics specifically.
“They’ve said they’re going to tell us in the next two weeks,” he said. “They haven’t told us how it’s going to work, whether it’s going to be spread across all the clinics, or whether there is going to be other savings found.”
In addition to providing free legal services to people with low income throughout Simcoe County, the clinic also does community outreach with organizations such as the Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness. Over the past year, the clinic assisted more than 5,200 people.
“We know it’s going to impact directly on services, our clients and the communities we serve,” said Hefferon. “I don’t think there’s any way that a budget cut of that magnitude could not affect the way that we deliver services, and what we can do for our clients.”
When contacted by OrilliaMatters, the Barrie Central District Office of Legal Aid Ontario referred inquiries to the central Legal Aid Ontario office.
“At this point, we’re answering press queries centrally – partially because we’re still determining how things will play out locally,” said Graeme Burk, senior media relations advisor with Legal Aid Ontario. “That said, we are committed to ensure that front line services continue throughout Ontario and minimize impact on local communities.”
For more information on the Community Legal Clinic - Simcoe, Haliburton, Kawartha Lakes, click here.