Criminal Lawyers’ Association calling on Ontario for more funding for legal aid

TORONTO — The Criminal Lawyers’ Association is calling on the Ontario government to increase the province’s legal aid program, saying insufficient funding is leaving more defendants unrepresented and discouraging young attorneys from staying on the defense law.

The association, which wrote to the province last month to seek a funding model to keep up with the cost of living, said it will meet with the government next week to discuss the issue.

Association President Daniel Brown said stagnant funding for legal aid has resulted in many defendants having to represent themselves in Ontario courts because they did not qualify for the program, which in turn creates inefficiency in the justice system and puts additional strain on the courts.

“It’s just a system in crisis,” Brown said in an interview on Tuesday.

Cases with unrepresented defendants can last three or four times longer than cases with defense attorneys, Brown said.

“We have judges who have to spend time teaching self-represented defendants how to defend themselves. You have to arm them with the knowledge and they have to spend extra time with them in court,” he said.

“[Defendants]have long, snaking questions and convoluted legal submissions that often get nowhere because they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s like someone trying to do their own open heart surgery. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

The minimum income threshold for legal aid is well below the poverty line, Brown noted.

“Someone doing a minimum-wage job would not be eligible for legal aid,” he said. “Frankly, they had no hope of paying for a private attorney, especially in the complex Superior Court cases.”

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Betty Vavougios, president of the Ontario Crown Attorney’s Association, said the court works less efficiently when defendants attempt to navigate the system themselves.

“The entire justice system suffers without a properly funded legal aid system,” Vavougios wrote Monday in a letter to the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, which supported his position.

“It is not an acceptable solution for the Crown and the judiciary to have to bear the burden of the additional responsibilities that come with dealing with unrepresented defendants who make their way through the justice system.”

The Ontario Attorney General’s Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In 2019, Ontario’s attorney general cut funding for legal aid by $133 million, 30 percent of the program’s budget at the time.

Last year the government said it would spend more than $72 million over two years to hire additional Crown prosecutors and new court staff to clear backlogs and support court services and victim and witness services.

Brown said the cuts to the legal aid program, coupled with increases in funding for the rest of the justice system, created “unequal justice”.

“(The Government) does not recognize that the lack of a defense attorney in the absence of funding for legal aid is at the root of these backlogs,” Brown said. “Hiring more crowns and more court staff will not solve this problem.”

Brown said legal aid rates for lawyers have remained the same for years, despite inflation, and that is driving young lawyers, who rely largely on legal aid, to abandon the right of defense altogether.

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“A criminal defense attorney is kind of a dying breed right now. And she’s dying because the source of funding for most young lawyers, whether racist, female or just young defense attorneys, is legal aid,” he said.

“And legal aid is being starved.”

In many cases, there are hard caps of eight or 10 hours that a defense attorney could pay for an entire trial under the current mutual legal assistance system, Brown said.

“That’s about a third or a quarter of what it actually takes to adequately defend this case,” he said. “So many lawyers just don’t take legal aid. Experienced lawyers in particular reject legal aid because it is massively underfunded.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on October 18, 2022.

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press

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