Letter to the Editor
On May 7, 2019, Peter Bethlenfalvy, president of the Ontario Treasury Board, wrote an opinion piece in the Toronto Star titled Ontario’s budget based on math, not ideology. If that is the case then the cuts to Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) was based on faulty math.
LAO provides direct front line services to moderate and low income Ontarians who cannot afford to hire a lawyer or a paralegal. These services are found in courthouses and at tribunals where we help people who don’t have representation. Legal services are offered on the phone and in the community. And, of course, these services help people fight for their legal rights, to preserve their housing, and to keep money in their pocket so they can afford to put food on their table.
All of these services are at risk because the Province’s math does not add up when it decided to cut LAO’s budget by $133M this year—a 35% reduction in provincial funding now that will reach 44% by 2021.
LAO Is Bearing the Brunt of the Cuts to the $5 billion Justice Sector
According to the province, the total justice sector budget is $5 billion, which will be reduced to $4.7 billion in three years for an annual reduction of $300 million. LAO’s budget is $495 million. The funding cut will reduce its budget by $133 million this year, increasing to $164 million in three years.
With this cut, the Province is targeting an organization that makes up only 10% of the justice sector budget to shoulder over 50% of the total justice sector cut. To put it in another way, the province is essentially saying that it cannot find any more savings in a $4.7 billion budget, and that it is completely efficient and should remain untouched, which defies logic. Surely this government can find $133 million somewhere in the justice sector where direct client services are not so negatively affected.
Furthermore, when you look at just the budget for the Ministry of the Attorney General, which funds LAO, the math is even worse. The Ministry of the Attorney General’s budget is being cut $154.3 million this year bringing the total budget down to $1,933,700.1 LAO is bearing 86% of the total reduction to the Ministry of the Attorney General.
When you look at these numbers, it is difficult to see how anyone can say that the Province is operating on good math when it made this decision.
The Province Is Ignoring the Auditor General’s Numbers on Legal Aid
The government justified the cut to LAO by saying that it served 10% fewer clients since 2013/14 while receiving increases to its budget. We strongly disagree with this statement as it contradicts Ontario’s chief auditor.
In December 2018, the Auditor General released a value-for-money report on LAO. This report was based on data and interviews provided by both LAO and Attorney General Mulroney’s staff. The audit took six months to complete and both the Ministry of the Attorney General and LAO signed off on the validity of the data in November 2018 before the report was released.
The Auditor General found that, during the same period of time, there was a 23% increase in the number of people represented by lawyers, a 2% increase in the number of unrepresented people helped at the courthouses and tribunals, and a 12% increase in legal clinic clients who receive help with housing, government benefit issues, and employment law matters.
By saying that LAO helped fewer people, the Province is directly contradicting its own numbers that it had provided to the Auditor General only months ago. It is also ignoring the stable financial health of LAO that the Auditor General had concluded in her report. Again, this demonstrates how the Province is operating on faulty math.
Every $1 Taken Away from Legal Aid Will Cost $6 in Government Expenditures Elsewhere2
As we said, LAO services help moderate-to-low income people. Its services:
- Help people maintain their housing, which keeps them from resorting to living in shelters or ending up in hospital emergency rooms;
- Ensure people who are eligible for government benefits, like social assistance and WSIB, are not illegally denied those benefits so that they have money in their pocket for basic needs such as food, resulting in better health outcomes and saving health care dollars;
- Provide people with access to counsel to better understand their situation, rights and case, which leads to legal matters being resolved more quickly and more efficiently, reducing delays and unnecessary trials;
- Reduce backlogs in courts and tribunals through the Duty Counsel program, which helps unrepresented parties.
There are numerous studies that support the idea that every $1 taken from Legal Aid will end up costing the taxpayer anywhere between $4 to $6. A government that is tackling a deficit should consider this strong evidence and see that the math does not add up. Cuts to Legal Aid will end up costing Ontario a lot more money than it saves.
If the Cut Was Meant to Stop Ontario Paying for Refugee Law Services, the Province Is Overreaching with this Decision
The other reason that the Province offered to support these cuts was that they wanted to stop paying for immigration and refugee law services.
LAO allocated $34 million in 2018/19 for immigration and refugee services. It anticipated receiving $16 million from the Federal government. Therefore, the province was only footing the bill for $18 million. Cutting $133 million to make a political statement about $18 million simply does not add up as the cut far exceeds the amount the Province was paying for these services, and it will drastically hurt other front line services.
The Province’s Math When It Comes to Legal Aid Is Clearly Wrong
As you can see, when it comes to Legal Aid cuts, the Province has been operating on faulty math. It’s poor calculations will hurt moderate to low income Ontarians who need legal services will be hurt the most.
We ask that this government take a second look at this decision and double check their faulty math before negatively affecting the lives of millions of the most marginalized individuals in our province.
Chair, Board of Directors
Mississauga Community Legal Services
1 2019 Ontario Budget, p. 284 (http://budget.ontario.ca/pdf/2019/2019-ontario-budget-en.pdf)
2 Reaching Equal Justice Report, Canadian Bar Association, p. 55 (http://www.cba.org/cbamedialibrary/cba_na/images/equal%20justice%20-%20microsite/pdfs/equaljusticefinalreport-eng.pdf)