Legal Aid Ontario has instructed the province’s lawyers they will no longer be paid to represent clients at bail hearings, effective immediately.
“Certificate lawyers may no longer bill for bail hearings on block fees. On these matters, duty counsel will continue to be available to provide bail services,” wrote David Field, President and CEO of Legal Aid Ontario in a notice to lawyers.
Legal Aid Ontario, which provides services to those who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer, is facing a 30-per-cent cut in funding by the Ontario government.
The organization claims its “priority remains to provide quality frontline service to our clients, while regularly reviewing our programs to better and more efficiently deliver them.”
But some lawyers say the service reductions will penalize the poor.
“The cuts to Legal Aid Ontario have gutted essential services for racialized and marginalized Ontarians who are often in desperate need of legal assistance,” said Daniel Brown, a Toronto criminal defence lawyer.
“The decision to cut funding for bail hearings will ensure that those who cannot afford legal help will spend lengthier periods in jail,” he told Global News.
Brown said the changes may result in some cases being “tossed out of court” if court delays drag on too long.
The LAO changes affect criminal law, family law, prison law and cases involving mental health. Lawyers have been told they will be paid 28 days after submitting their bills rather than 14 days, the current practice.
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“Persons who are accused of crimes are going to be less well-defended than they were before,” said Dirk Derstine, a Toronto criminal defence lawyer who frequently represents clients charged with serious offences through legal aid.
“There’s no question it will disincentivize lawyers from defending people on legal aid, it’s already difficult,” said Derstine, pointing out the increasing challenge of providing a defence for legal aid clients.
However, Ontario Premier Doug Ford says no one will be denied legal aid coverage, in spite of the cuts.
“If anyone needs support on legal aid, feel free to call my office. I will guarantee you that you will have legal aid,” Ford told Global News Radio during an unscheduled call to the Alan Carter Show on April 22.
In practice, however, services will be less available than prior to the cuts, lawyers agree.
“I don’t think that the premier understands, or perhaps he understands and just doesn’t care that, you know, low-income Ontarians are going to be severely impacted,” said Bhutila Karpoche, NDP MPP for Parkdale-High Park.