Critics say frustration growing with legal aid
TORONTO - Support for a legal aid boycott in Ontario will only grow if the Ontario government refuses to take swift action on what an increasing number of legal professionals say is an unfair and underfunded system, critics said Friday.
Adam Boni, a Toronto director of the Criminal Lawyers Association, said people both inside and outside the justice system have come to see that defence lawyers aren't getting the money they need to try complicated cases. He said they will keep pressuring the province to increase funding -- whether it claims the money's there or not.
"To people on the front lines, the government's position that there is no more money, or insufficient funds to properly fund legal aid, makes no sense," said Boni.
"When these huge homicides and guns-and-gangs cases come through the system, it is not uncommon to see more than one Crown attorney assigned, more than one police officer case management officer assigned, more than one paralegal."
The boycott, targeting homicide and guns-and-gangs cases, began in June in Toronto and spread to Kingston and Thunder Bay.
This week, a former Superior Court justice and the province's Crown attorneys joined the legal aid protest, warning that ongoing neglect will do irreversible damage to the justice system.
"It is the government's lack of response and dithering on the issue that has actually resulted in the boycott gaining momentum, because this is the type of issue that requires an immediate, thorough and meaningful response -- and we don't have that at all," Boni said.
NDP critic Peter Kormos said the increase in complaints should be taken seriously because they show the quality of the criminal justice system is at risk.
"It's not just about lawyers, it's about ensuring that the criminal justice system works," said Kormos.
"The underfunded system as we have it now allows the rich to walk away with high-level defences and the poor and the very poor to suffer at the hands of less-than adequate defences."
Kormos added he thought Attorney General Chris Bentley "personally feels a commitment to adequate funding of legal aid."
But, he said, "it's the government that has failed the system and Chris Bentley doesn't have the clout at the cabinet table to bring the dollars that are necessary to deliver an adequate level of funding."
Bentley wasn't available for comment but spokesman Brendan Crawley said the province had been working hard to find a way to "renew" legal aid.
"We've made a good start with a 15 per cent increase in the tariff, but it is important to note that there were 15 years of cuts and freezes," said Crawley.
"We will keep working with those who do the work to create a sustainable legal aid system for the future but we have to remember that these are very challenging economic times."
To Boni, however, talk of recessionary pressures is a hollow excuse, especially in the wake of funding announcements for police forces, such as a $10-million investment in a Toronto anti-violence plan known as TAVIS, just last month.
He also noted that while fees for legal aid lawyers did rise by 15 per cent in the last 20 years, increases on the prosecution side have been more than 50 per cent and judges' pay has risen 83 per cent.
He also dismissed references to legal aid cuts under previous governments.
"That's not an acceptable approach, especially not in a climate where the government on the one hand cries that we're in the middle of an economic recession, and then on the other hand, they find more than enough funds to properly fund these humongous guns-and-gangs cases, to fund TAVIS and those types of police programs in Toronto."
The association wants the government to set up consultations with all justice stakeholders to look at how much funding is available for defence lawyers and determine what increase in tariffs can be brought in.
Last fall, a report by Patrick LeSage, a former chief justice, and Michael Code, a University of Toronto law professor, which was commissioned by Bentley, called on Legal Aid Ontario to develop a new tariff that provides for "enhanced" and "exceptional" fees in longer, complex cases, structured so only "the most able" defence lawyers are entitled to apply.