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In addition to the 30% budget cut, the province also raised the income threshold for legal aid eligibility by about $1,000 (US$750).
The government of Ontario, Canada has announced budget cuts to legal aid by nearly 30%, for individuals in the justice system, which many criticize for disproportionately impacting communities already facing marginalization.
Legal Aid Ontario can no longer allocate provincial funds to assist the ever-growing amount of refugees and immigrants with legal cases, due to the $133 million (about US$100 million) budget reduction. The reduction comes with the province's goal of reducing overall legal aid spending by $164 million (US$123 million) every year, starting in 2021.
In addition to the budget cut, the province also raised the income threshold for legal aid eligibility by about $1,000 (US$750). Now, people seeking legal aid must make less than $17,731 (some US$13,000), including assets, annually to qualify.
David Field, CEO of Legal Aid Ontario, stressed the significance of this blow since the provincial government is "the largest component of our budget." The government has tried to deflect responsibility, saying that through organizational reforms, they can assist more people with less funding.
Last month, Ontario’s Conservative government asked us to increase funding to legal aid in the province, because they know that legal aid helps protect Ontario’s most vulnerable. Yesterday, they choose to cut legal aid funding by 30% anyway.
While there is little that can be done to influence the budget provisions, Field vows to address the deficit. "We have to look at the entire organization and how we can adapt to the new fiscal reality that we're facing," the CEO said, which includes streamlining and online services.
Field also pointed out the bad timing of the budget cuts, as the country has "seen a marked increase over the last three or four years in the number of refugee claims that we've been having to deal with. And so having the province now say that only the federal government's going to provide those services does represent a challenge for us."
This will prove to be quite the challenge, as the government must uphold Section 10 of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees anyone who is arrested the right to legal counsel.
So far this year, the federal government has provided less than half of the funds necessary to run the refugee law program, which costs about $34 million (US$25 million). Instead of taking on the rest of the costs, the provincial government has called on the federal government to cover the costs entirely.
Legal aid lawyer Dana Fisher expressed fear that the cut has the potential to threaten lives.
"You're looking at immediate impacts to defending people's rights to liberty, to access to justice, to people being able to fight for custody to their children and access to their children, including women who are fleeing domestic violence."
The budget provision will further negatively impact Canada's reputation in the international field for poor ranking in justice systems evaluations, which is a direct result of the country's legal aid programs lacking generosity and access.