More than 100 protestors gathered in front of Ontario’s legislature on May 7 to protest cuts to the budget of Legal Aid Ontario.
The protestors included dozens of lawyers in robes, who applauded speakers criticizing the province’s recent budget announcement.
Francisco Rico-Martinez, co-director of FCJ Refugee Centre, spoke at the event and called on Ontario Attorney General Caroline Mulroney to address the cuts.
Other speakers included family doctor Ritika Goel, who said the cuts raised concerns about meeting the mental health needs of refugees, and a journalist who said he came to Canada for safety from Turkey.
“I think the doctors participating in the protests is really significant. My mom was a big union person, so she was used to doing these a lot. But when it’s people from groups who don’t normally protest in public, and they do protest in public, it’s a really big deal. So I borrowed my friend’s robe and said, ‘Well, I want to cheer on everyone who decided to put it on, because that’s big,’” said law professor Signa Daum Shanks.
On April 11, the government announced a provincial budget that included $133 million less funding to Legal Aid Ontario this year. The province said in the budget it hopes to save $164 million each year starting in 2021 on legal aid, which says it offers legal services to low-income people independent of the government but uses public funds.
Legal Aid Ontario had previously budgeted $30 million to $34 million for refugee and immigration certificates and staff services, according to an earlier statement from LAO CEO David Field. Now, it may use only its $13 million to $16.5 million in federal funds for refugee and immigration services, according to instructions given by the government to LAO.
“The prior government spent more and more money on legal aid without achieving the results that legal aid’s clients and taxpayers expect. While some lawyers may not welcome renewed accountability at legal aid, every dollar saved is a dollar we can invest in the services that matter most to people, such as public health care and education," said Alexandra Adamo, press secretary for Mulroney, in an email.
Nima Hojjati, an associate at Swadron Associates in Toronto, said he attended the protests because he agreed with the moral arguments in favour of provincial spending on legal aid, and he said there were also financial arguments in favour of maintaining higher legal aid spending. For instance, Kate Robertson, a lawyer at Markson Law, who accepts legal aid certificates, previously told Law Times that if lower-income litigants go unrepresented, the burden may fall on judges, police and court staff to help them, slowing down the court system and bumping up costs.
“I hope it doesn’t fall on deaf ears,” Hojjati said of the protests. Daum Shanks also said the cuts “don’t make monetary sense.”
Additional organizations have planned more protests over Ontario’s legal aid cuts. Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now Canada, which says it works with low- and moderate-income families, planned a series of marches on May 9 in Ottawa, Toronto and Hamilton.
Legal Aid Ontario said it will hold a series of in‑person and online consultations in Hamilton, Ottawa, Toronto, Windsor and London, Ont. this month to consider “ways to achieve savings, while meeting the needs of as many refugees as possible.”
Toronto lawyer Omar Ha-Redeye said that while he doesn’t take legal aid certificates, he attended the protest out of solidarity with other lawyers.
“Legal aid does need widespread reform. The government should consult broadly, and take incremental steps when making changes, to avoid any sudden impacts on vulnerable groups,” he said.