Due to Ford government cutbacks, Legal Aid Ontario said Wednesday will no longer pay outside lawyers to represent clients at bail hearings, a move the union representing duty counsel in Ontario says could lead to more people spending extended stints in jail before a bail hearing.

Attorney General Caroline Mulroney says the move, prompted by a retroactive 30 per cent cut to Legal Aid Ontario’s funding in the 2019 budget, means those in bail court will still be able to see duty counsel and the policy change is about removing duplication in the system.

“People who are in bail court already have a legal aid lawyer, duty counsel is there – they do most of the cases across the province already. So we’re just not paying for another lawyer to come in,” she told CP24 on Wednesday.

Dana Fisher, a duty counsel at College Park courts and spokesperson for the Legal Aid Local at the Society of United Professionals, says that is a mischaracterization of what outside lawyer are brought in to do ahead of bail hearings.

She says that that while most simple bail hearings in Ontario are handled by duty counsel, accused parties with a significant number of charges, severe mental health issues or other complex issues in their case are often referred to an outside lawyer for help.

“They’re sometimes in a much better position to do that,” Fisher said, adding duty counsel lawyers have to act to help a large number of clients and might not have the proper time to prepare for a complex case.

“While (the duty counsel is) on the seat arguing a bail hearing, there’s nobody preparing the next case, there’s no body to interview the next client,” Fisher said.

Mulroney insists everyone who comes before bail court after their arrest will get assistance under the new regime.

“People who can’t afford legal representation must still be able to count on Legal Aid and that’s still the case.”

Fisher said Mulroney’s suggestion of duplication of work in bail courts is inaccurate.

“Her suggestion is like only needing one emergency room doctor in the ER — you can’t have one person doing everything.”

Under current rules, single people must have an annual income of less than $22,270 to qualify for legal aid assistance from a duty counsel.

The Legal Aid Local says in some courthouses, 50 per cent of bail hearings are dealt with by duty counsel, while in others up to 90 per cent are handled by duty counsel.

Fisher said the average amount an outside lawyer is paid to handle a bair hearing is around $200.

Fisher said the change will likely not save the province any money because it will lead to more people waiting longer in jail before the cases are heard.

“There is a significant risk that people will spend longer in custody unnecessarily.”

In 2012, it cost an average of $5,600 per prisoner, per month to house an inmate in a provincial jail.

Mulroney said the change was made only after “a lot of careful work” with Legal Aid Ontario.