Lawyers and doctors join forces to battle legal aid cuts for refugees, immigrants

Lawyers and doctors join forces to battle legal aid cuts for refugees, immigrants
Seven years after massive protests over Ottawa’s refugee reforms and health-care cuts, lawyers and doctors are joining forces for another battle, this time against Ontario’s cuts to legal aid for immigrants and refugees.

On Tuesday, members of the legal and health-care sectors will renew their joint political activism by staging a protest in their black robes and white coats at Queen’s Park, demanding that Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government reverse its $45 million — part of a 30 per cent or $133 million overall budget reduction to Legal Aid Ontario.

“We have a new bully in town and we will be fighting that,” said Mac Scott, a Toronto paralegal, migrants’ advocate and protest organizer, referring to Ontario’s PC government. “Ford must ask himself how much disruption he is willing to deal with.”

In 2012, reforms by the then-Stephen Harper government slashing health care for refugees and restricting asylum claims from so-called safe countries, galvanized frontline doctors and lawyers to protest at MPs’ offices and government buildings. Many of those reforms have since been successfully challenged and reversed by the Federal Court.

Since April 15, Legal Aid Ontario has stopped funding humanitarian applications and detention reviews as well as appeals and Federal Court reviews of negative and allegedly wrongful decisions in asylum and deportation cases. It currently only funds the preparation of forms for asylum claims.

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Toronto psychiatrist Dr. Michaela Beder, who had been active in fighting Harper’s cuts, said legal aid no longer funds mental and physical health assessments for refugee claimants to document torture scars and trauma — a critical component to a successful refugee claim.

Toronto psychiatrist Dr. Michaela Beder said legal representation is desperately needed for refugees, many of whom have survived violence and torture.  (Jing Kao-Beserve)

She said many marginalized groups are being used as “pawns” in political battles and that the legal aid cuts have the most direct and damaging impact on access to justice.

“Legal representation is desperately needed for refugees,” she said, adding the asylum system is complex and hard to navigate as it is. Beder, who has had patients who have survived torture and violence, is pushing for the cuts to be reversed.

Toronto lawyer Annie O’Dell said the cuts mean refugee claimants are not represented at asylum hearings or do not get help in collecting relevant evidence and translating documents to support their cases.

Toronto lawyer Annie O’Dell said legal aid cuts mean refugee claimants are not represented at asylum hearings or do not get help in collecting relevant evidence and documents.

“This is going to have a devastating and irreversible impact on an already marginalized community. It can be a life and death situation for claimants and family separation for others,” said O’Dell, adding a previous study by York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School found that claimants with lawyers and consultants had a much higher acceptance rate than those who were represented themselves in their proceedings.

An online petition launched by the legal community against the cuts to legal aid funding for immigrants and refugees has already collected almost 15,000 signatures.
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