The attorney general has ordered a third-party review of Legal Aid Ontario, after the agency announced last month that it was dramatically cutting back on services due to a $26-million deficit.
Yasir Naqvi will be bringing in an external firm to review the arm’s-length government agency’s budget forecasting methodology, decision-making procedures related to budget management, and Legal Aid’s plan to balance its budget.
The firm’s report must be delivered to Naqvi and John McCamus, chair of the Legal Aid board, by March 31, and will be made public “shortly after,” Naqvi said in a statement.
“As Attorney General, I am concerned and want to ensure that Legal Aid Ontario is positioned to address its financial challenges in a way that will not impact the delivery of front-line legal services.”
Legal Aid’s decision to cut back on services could potentially affect thousands of Ontarians. While the agency will still issue legal aid certificates — which cover a person’s legal fees — for criminal defence lawyers in cases where there is a “substantial likelihood of incarceration,” it will generally no longer do so in other matters.
That means that impoverished individuals who may not be facing jail time but could be deported, fired or slapped with a hefty fine if they are convicted — and get a criminal record in the process — will be left to fend for themselves in court.
Legal Aid, which has a $440-million annual budget, said it will also not increase salaries at legal clinics and will be reducing clinic operation budgets by $1 million, among other changes.
The agency’s president and CEO, David Field, told the Star in an interview in December that he would welcome an external audit, saying he was “very confident” in Legal Aid’s financial situation. He reiterated that position to the Star in a statement Friday.
“We welcome the opportunity to confirm that our plan will address the deficit,” Field said.
“We appreciate the Attorney General’s interest in the matter and welcome the opportunity to work with the Ministry of the Attorney General and to review our process and its projections to ensure that low-income Ontarians will continue to receive the high-quality services they need.”
News of the external review was applauded by critics who have described Legal Aid as a bloated bureaucracy that mishandled the hundreds of millions of dollars it receives from the provincial government, something Field has denied.
“We commend the Attorney-General for his quick action in having Legal Aid’s actions audited in light of Legal Aid’s current deficit,” said Anthony Moustacalis, president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association.
“For the last six years, Legal Aid has been mismanaging the public trust, and abusing its independence by going on a massive lawyer and staff hiring program. They did so because of an unwarranted fear that the Criminal Lawyers’ Association would tell criminal lawyers to stop taking legal aid cases.”
Margaret Parsons, executive director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic, said she wants the external review to consult with stakeholders including her clinic, and hopes that the review will also look at past deficits at Legal Aid.
“(Legal Aid) needs to be held to the same standard that it has held some clinics, and they can’t eliminate their massive deficit on the backs of poor people by the elimination or cutting back of services,” she said.
Despite its deficit, Legal Aid still plans to raise the household-income threshold to qualify for legal aid by six per cent starting in April. The threshold for a single person with no dependants is currently around $13,000 — long criticized as far too low and not reflective of the face of poverty in Ontario.