‘It’s causing a lot of fear’: Lawyers brace for ‘demoralizing’ Legal Aid cuts
Ryan Handlarski became a criminal lawyer to defend people charged with serious offences.
“I do that work because I love it,” Handlarski, who is based in Toronto, told Global News.
Last month, he worked on a bail hearing for a long-time client who was charged with a weapons offence with funding from Legal Aid Ontario that covered only two hours of work. But due to the complex nature of the case, including the need to cross-examine a police officer, the hearing alone lasted four days.
In the end, Handlarski was successful, and he got his client out on bail.
WATCH BELOW: Refugee claimants fear impact of Ontario Legal Aid cuts
But starting on Sunday, Legal Aid will no longer pay for private lawyers to do these sorts of bail hearings, along with a slew of other cuts to the non-profit agency that assists people who cannot afford a lawyer or don’t yet have one. It is part of the budget cuts imposed by the Doug Ford government that includes slashing 30 per cent, or $133 million, in funding for Legal Aid. This also includes curbing services for refugee and immigration cases.
“The cuts are demoralizing because the system is already underfunded. We are already not being paid for hours upon hours of our time,” said Handlarski. “We all have to do our part to try to make the system work, and so I was willing to do it in that case.”
As of next week, private defence lawyers will no longer be eligible for the $300 in funding for bail hearings as duty counsel will assume them.
And their caseloads have already increased, even before the cuts have officially kicked in.
“It’s causing a lot of fear and uncertainty going forward,” Dana Fisher, a spokesperson for the union that represents Legal Aid staff lawyers, told Global News. As a criminal duty counsel herself, Fisher said that duty counsel often has to juggle a heavy workload, and the system works well when lawyers like her work in tandem with private defence lawyers.
“I think it is going to slow down the bail courts quite drastically,” said Fisher. “There’s a concern that there won’t be time for staff to actually prepare the hearings the ways in which they need to be prepared.”
Even without the budget cuts, the bail regime in Ontario and across the country is under stress and has been subjected to intense criticism. Research compiled by the John Howard Society has found that more than half of inmates in provincial jails in Canada have not been convicted of any crime, but are being held because they failed to make bail. Many in pretrial custody are dealing with mental health issues, and the population is disproportionately composed of black and Indigenous peoples. Statistics Canada data shows that a significant percentage of criminal charges are dropped or do not make it to trial.
Ottawa defence lawyer Ewan Lyttle told Global News that the cuts will have a “catastrophic effect” on the bail system as duty counsel may not be prepared for every case, something that results in matter being put over for a later time.
“Nobody, regardless of whether they are guilty or innocent, is going to want to spend time in jail,” said Lyttle. “Spending time in jail is so unpleasant that it has the potential effect of extorting guilty pleas. People will be more inclined to plead guilty because it might get them out of jail faster even though they might not be culpable for the offence.“
WATCH BELOW: The Peterborough Community Legal Centre reacts to budget cuts
In an Ottawa courtroom on Thursday, Global News witnessed a number of individuals accused of crimes attempt to access Legal Aid services.
One man, who addressed the court through video link from jail, said that he was sick of being in jail and wanted to “plead guilty right away.“
Another man, who said he was a refugee and did not have Canadian citizenship, said that he was innocent of his charges and was “getting sick of being treated as a criminal.” The man said he had not been able to reach a lawyer.
“I want to get bailed out,“ he said. “I am not a criminal.“
The Ford government has said the cuts are necessary to streamline legal services in Ontario and will benefit taxpayers. Doug Ford has said that Legal Aid will be made available to everyone.
“If anyone needs support on Legal Aid, feel free to call my office. I will guarantee you that you will have Legal Aid,” the premier told Global News Radio during a call to the Alan Carter Show in April.
A spokesperson for Legal Aid Ontario told Global News in an email that “The vast majority of publicly-funded bail hearings in Ontario (about 81%) are being done by duty counsel already. There may be regional differences, but we are making changes to duty counsel services to free up capacity for duty counsel and we will be monitoring to ensure that we have struck the right balance.“
WATCH BELOW: Legal Aid funding cut could kill community clinics warns Kingston Executive Director
Meanwhile, legal advocates continue to push back against the cuts.
Lou Strezos, the Toronto director of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, told Global News that the group, which is one of the largest organizations representing lawyers in the country, will continue to push for proper funding for Legal Aid through discussions with the agency and with the provincial government.
“The administration of justice shouldn’t have to go through these times of crisis,” he said.
“This should be an essential service just like police, crown attorneys. And I hope that one day the public understands that defence lawyers are an essential public service.“
In May, a group of lawyers and doctors protested the cuts outside of Queen`s Park, saying they will harm marginalized people who already experience barriers to justice.
“I think they were made recklessly and unilaterally,” Toronto immigration lawyer Sheau Lih Vong told reporters at the time. “It’s going to affect a lot of my clients, a lot of vulnerable populations
Some protesters held a banner with the phrase: “Dump Thug Ford with a General Strike.”
The federal government has expressed disappointment with the Ontario cuts. A spokesperson for federal Justice Minister David Lametti told CBC News he was “deeply disappointed” by how asylum seekers will be impacted.
“They will only punish those who are seeking safety in Canada,” said the spokesperson, who added that the federal government has been increasing financial support for legal aid services for refugee claimants.
“We welcome the Ontario government to join us at the table where we are discussing these important issues and work together toward a solution.”