Sweeping cuts to legal clinics called a ‘directed attack’ on Toronto and organizations challenging Ford government
|Toronto Star 12 Jun 2019 at 18:41|
In what critics are calling an attack on Toronto and on advocacy work that challenges the provincial government, Legal Aid Ontario is cutting almost $1 million in funding across 13 neighbourhood legal clinics in the city and pulling $1 million from a 14th clinic, Parkdale Community Legal Services.
“This is a directed attack,” said Lenny Abramowicz, executive director of the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario. “They are specifically attacking the portion of the clinic mandate that is most challenging to the government — and the city of Toronto.”
News of the cuts, which Mayor John Tory has described as “harsher” in Toronto compared to the rest of the province, was being communicated to legal clinics by Legal Aid Ontario beginning Wednesday.
One of the provincial agency’s main responsibilities is to provide funding for private lawyers to represent impoverished people in court. It is also the main funder of Ontario’s 73 community legal clinics, some of which provide general legal services to low-income people on matters such as housing and income security in specific “catchment areas,” while others have provincial mandates in certain issues, including HIV/AIDS, children and youth, and the elderly.
Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) has been grappling with cuts to its budget made by the Ford government in April — a 30 per cent reduction of the previously anticipated $456-million provincial allocation. The cuts that LAO is imposing on clinics, totalling about $14.5 million, are part of a larger cost-cutting effort to save about $70 to $75 million this year. The cuts will also see reductions to LAO’s internal operations, to its funding for private lawyers in court, and to immigration and refugee services.
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Six so-called “specialty clinics” with provincial mandates to deal with tenants’ rights, income security, the environment and workers’ rights will be losing a portion of their funding — a total of more than $2 million — after LAO concluded they were spending more of their time doing law reform and community organizing than on direct client services, which LAO said it wants to preserve as much as possible.
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Toronto legal clinics that provide general legal services in their neighbourhoods will be disproportionately hit by the cuts in part because of how the city has changed since legal aid funding began, LAO staff told reporters at a briefing Tuesday. More and more low-income people are leaving the city and moving to the 905 region, the agency said, meaning that the clinics’ funding is no longer in line with the number of low-income residents in their neighbourhoods.
A number of Toronto clinics are also in proximity to each other and can share services, the agency said, and are more likely to be close to other social support services and public transportation options that are not available to rural and northern clinics.
Toronto clinics will be facing steeper cuts in order to save those rural and northern clinics, which LAO board chair Charles Harnick told reporters would be “devastated” by any major cuts to budgets. Harnick, a former attorney general of Ontario in the Mike Harris government, was appointed to the LAO board this spring by the Ford government.
He said the government did not dictate where to make the cuts, and an LAO spokesperson dismissed as “baseless” the accusation that the cuts were directed at Toronto or advocacy work by clinics, pointing out that other clinics that do a lot more client work but also some advocacy work barely faced any cuts.
“I would say in a city of three million people — which has a lot of challenges in terms of people who are part of its refugee population, part of its immigrant population, people who are low-income — I think the facts would demonstrate that we have more people probably in need of legal aid than anywhere else in the province,” Tory told reporters at city hall Wednesday.
While the vast majority of clinics in Ontario will see only a 10 per cent cut to “other operating costs” — things like bookkeeping, office supplies and equipment — and have their contingency funding pulled back if they have any, Toronto neighbourhood clinics will see an average cut of 6 per cent to their overall budgets.
At Neighbourhood Legal Services, located in an area with the most shelters in Toronto, at Queen St. E. and Jarvis St., and which serves thousands of low-income individuals and people with mental health issues every year, the cut is 10 per cent, or $120,000 of its $1.2-million budget.
Clinic executive director Jack de Klerk said the elimination of positions will be inevitable, and that it will have a direct impact on client services, something Legal Aid said it wanted to preserve as much as possible when making the cuts.
“It makes me feel as if the folks making these decisions don’t really appreciate what work is actually going on,” he said.
De Klerk, who is retiring this year after 40 years in the clinic system, said he also believes the low-income population in his clinic’s catchment area is higher than Legal Aid’s estimate of 33,000.
Low-income people are more likely not to respond to the census or not to file taxes, he said, “and complicating the demographic is that many of them live in shelters; we have more shelters in this area than anywhere else in the city. And a large part of the work that we do is trying to normalize people’s immigration status. If they don’t have legal status, they’re not going to respond to the census.”
According to the 2016 census, Toronto had a higher prevalence of low-income residents than any other Ontario census area, with 20.2 per cent of the population in 2015 considered low-income after tax by Statistics Canada’s measure. That is also higher than the provincial (14.4 per cent) and Canada-wide (14.2 per cent) percentages. The next highest percentage in Ontario was the eastern Ontario municipality of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry (17.9 per cent).
The prevalence of low-income residents was also much higher in Toronto at last count than in other parts of the surrounding region, including Hamilton (15.3 per cent), Peel (12.8 per cent), York (12 per cent), Durham (9.7 per cent) and Halton (8.2 per cent).
Parkdale Community Legal Services will be hit particularly hard by the cuts — more than $1 million will be stripped from its $2.3-million budget over the next two years. LAO staff told reporters that the demographics in the community have changed dramatically since the clinic first opened in the 1970s as one of Ontario’s first legal clinics.
LAO also compared Parkdale to a legal clinic in Windsor, finding the latter had a higher number of low-income residents and spent more time on direct client work as opposed to community organizing, but also received far less funding.
The Parkdale clinic’s executive director told the Star the drastic cut cannot be seen as anything else than an attack on the advocacy work of her clinic, which is especially well known for its work on housing rights.
“The ability to challenge government and powerful bodies is being attacked, and that is the cut to Parkdale, that is an attack on the fact that we do have a very strong voice,” said Johanna Macdonald. “It’s a critical voice that is being cut in half right now in this neighbourhood and it reverberates throughout the province.”
Attorney General Caroline Mulroney had faced criticism in the lead-up to Wednesday’s announcement for to discuss the imminent cuts. Her spokesperson, Jesse Robichaud, told the Star that Legal Aid worked to ensure that resources were kept for direct, front-line services.
“There is no doubt that some lawyers and other special-interest groups will resist renewed accountability with public dollars, but it is necessary to better serve Legal Aid Ontario’s clients and the taxpayers who pay the bill,” he said in a statement.
The executive director of Willowdale Community Legal Services — which is getting a 7 per cent cut of about $66,000 from its $944,000 budget — said he took issue with the suggestion that there was a lack of accountability in the clinic system.
“The whole model of the community legal clinic system is one that provides accountability to the government,” said Myers. “Our budgets are fixed, clinics spend within their budgets, every expense is audited, there are quarterly reports delivered to Legal Aid Ontario, both financial and in terms of client service and other work that the clinic does. So the beauty of the clinic system model is that it is fiscally responsible and it’s proven that over 40 to 50 years.”