Canadian lawyers bracing themselves for Legal Aid cuts

Ryan Handlarski isn’t a criminal lawyer in Brampton, but he is a criminal lawyer working in Ontario. He says that he took that work on because he loves it.

Earlier in May, he represented one of his long-standing clients during a bail hearing, the client called to court due to a weapons offence, with funding provided by Legal Aid Ontario. The problem being that the funding only covered the equivalent of two hours of work, but the nature of the case resulted in the hearing lasting four days.

Through hard work, however, Handlarski managed to successfully get the client out.

The recent budget cuts to Legal Aid Ontario would result in a criminal lawyer in Brampton or anywhere else in the province being unable to do similar bail hearings, on top of other cuts to Legal Aid Ontario, aimed at providing legal assistance and representation to people who can’t afford it.

These cuts to LAO’s funding are part of the recent cuts being implemented by the Doug Ford government, which includes 30%, or $133m, of Legal Aid’s funding, which would also curb refugee and immigration-related services.

Criminal defence lawyers like Handlarski are expressing fears about the budget cuts, set to go live later in July, who consider them demoralizing and problematic for the legal system.

A spokesperson for Legal Aid staff union, Criminal Duty Counsel Dan Fisher, notes that the cuts are causing a lot of fear and uncertainty, as many like her often have to deal with a heavy workload.

The John Howard Society did research on Canada’s bail regime, noting approximately half, possibly more, of the inmates in Canada’s provincial jails haven’t actually been convicted, or found guilty of any crime or infraction, but remain incarcerated due to being unable to make bail, with some dealing with mental health issues and other problems that require special care, as well as a disproportionate amount of black and Indigenous inmates.

Ewan Lyttle, a defence lawyer operating in Ottawa, says that the budget cuts would have disastrous ramifications for the bail system as it stands, as duty counsels might end up unprepared for the majority of their cases, which might lead to the trail being put on hold for a later date, all while the defendant spends time in jail. Lyttle says that this is bad, as time in jail might lead to people pleading guilty simply to get out of jail faster, even if they didn’t actually commit the crime they are being accused of.

Several Canadian lawyers headed for Queen’s Park to protest against the budget cuts, with some calling it a reckless and unilateral mistake.

Premier Doug Ford has defended the cuts, saying that they’re necessary for the streamlining legal services in the province, and anyone looking for support on Legal Aid can call his office.