Ontario has made deep cuts to the legal aid system. Deep cuts — to the tune of $133 million — that mean that many impoverished and marginalized Ontarians will now face prosecution, conviction, and the possibility of jail time without the assistance of a lawyer.
They include a 70-year-old woman with no criminal record who lives on a meager pension. She had too much to drink one night and got into a fight with her abusive partner. The police were called and now the Crown wants to brand her a criminal.
And man on disability who only has one lung and uses an oxygen tank. He was charged with failing to provide a breath sample because he could not blow enough air into the breathalyzer. Prosecutors want to give him a criminal record and ban him from driving.
These are real people – I met with both of them last week. They were both denied legal aid and can't afford a lawyer. Stories like this are only the tip of the iceberg. Under Premier Doug Ford, our courts risk becoming factories of waste and injustice.
Perhaps Ford thinks that a fight with the poorest and most vulnerable Ontarians – because that is who depends on the legal aid – will be an easy victory. It is easier, after all, to punch down.
But this is one fight where there can be no winner. Ford's cuts are not just financially reckless, but will also result in wrongful convictions, as well as serious criminals escaping justice. Ontario will see immigration unfairness, vulnerable tenants left without any meaningful recourse to hold predatory landlords to account, and the shuttering of community legal clinics.
Back in April, the Ontario government slashed funding to Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) by 30 per cent. To make matters worse, the $133 million cut took effect immediately – there was no advanced notice – despite the fact that LAO's 2019 budget had already been finalized. And on top of it all, the province directed LAO that no provincial money can be used to cover immigration and refugee law, putting the onus on the federal government to cover the cost.
So, immigrants and refugees, many of whom have escaped desperate and dangerous circumstances will now face a hopeless situation in Canada. Many refugees don't speak English and don't have a sophisticated understanding of Canada's legal system. Most live in poverty. And now they will not have access to a lawyer through the province's legal aid system.
It's unclear exactly how these cuts will manifest on the ground level, but already legal aid clinics are grappling with the threat of closure, and it is likely there will be changes to types of charges eligible for coverage. More people will therefore be forced to represent themselves.
Unrepresented litigants devour justice system resources. Their cases take longer to wind their way through the bureaucratic court system and cost more to prosecute. So, a dollar saved through legal aid cuts will consume more resources at the end of the day. A pretty bad investment. And clogging court resources with slow-moving unrepresented litigants might mean more charges thrown out of court due to unconstitutional delay. Thank you, Doug Ford.
Unrepresented accused are also more likely to be steamrolled in our courts. You see, our justice system is adversarial and only functions if the adversaries – the prosecution and the defense – are equally matched. An impoverished, marginalized, or unsophisticated self-represented litigant stands no chance against the well-funded state. With odds stacked against them, many unrepresented accused are coerced into pleading guilty, even when they are not. Because of Ford, there will be more wrongful convictions.
When the stark reality of his cuts was discussed on talk radio back in April, it seemed to get under Ford's thin skin. After almost "hitting three telephone poles," Ford called in to defend himself. At the end of that impromptu call Ford said that, "if anyone needs support on legal aid, feel free to call my office. I will guarantee you that you will have legal aid."
Legal aid 'guarantee'
Ford made his personal guarantee more than 50 days ago. Since then, he has not responded to emails, faxes, or text messages about how people who have been denied legal aid can take him up on his promise. Because he was never serious.
Maybe Ford thought his reckless cuts to the legal aid system would go unnoticed. But lawyers, judges, and the vast majority of Ontarians have taken notice, and most are opposed Ford's slash-and-burn philosophy.
Ford may not care about those in need, but he sure seems to care about his own political skin. So maybe, just maybe, there is still time for Ford to reverse course. Because there are never any winners in a war against a fair justice system.