CORNWALL, Ontario – In April, the Progressive Conservative government of Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a roughly 30 percent cut to the provincial Legal Aid Service.
Legal Aid provides lawyers to those who request them in criminal and family matters as well as funding Legal Clinics, like the one in Cornwall, which provides advice and representation for people involved in employment matters, housing, human rights and more.
Cornwall Mayor Bernadette Clement is the Executive Director of Cornwall’s Legal Aid office.
“The local cut to our Clinic looks to be in the 1.3 to 2 per cent range retroactive to April 1, 2019 for this year but I am still working with our Board of Directors to analyze the exact amount and the impact,” Clement said in an emailed statement to Seaway News.
Clement said that the cuts vary from clinic to clinic most heavily impacted clinics are the Specialty Clinics which are based mostly in the Toronto area. Clement explained that Cornwall’s Legal Aid office will often consult these clinics on specialty matters.
“The cut we are experiencing this year will be manageable for this year,” Clement said. “We won’t have to layoff anyone. I don’t know what the cuts will look like next year and I’m always worried for what next year will look like.”
The Cornwall Legal Aid office employs four full-time lawyers, one paralegal, two full-time support staff, two part-time support staff and two articling students.
The Cornwall Legal Aid office does not deal with criminal or family matters. Neha Chugh of the Chugh Law Professional Corporation explained how these cuts will hurt the most disadvantaged during the most critical stage of the judicial process.
“The very first step after arrest in court is the bail hearing,” she said. “It is arguably the most important step in their process. Now they will have to be assisted by a staff lawyer instead of a Legal Aid lawyer of their choice.”
Chugh warned that a staff lawyer might not be familiar with a clients background, schedule or have the time to advise a client on how to make the best impression.
“I’m concerned that it will lead to more adjournments and more pleas because they are spending more time in jail,” she said.
Chugh said that 75 per cent of her office’s billings are through Legal Aid and that they are in bail hearings nearly every day.
Indigenous Canadians and Canadians living with mental health issues get increased hours with their lawyer through Legal Aid. Due to the cuts, the amount of hours an Indigenous Canadian can have with their Legal Aid lawyer has been reduced from five to three and the amount of time a person with mental health issues gets is down from five to two-and-a-half.
The advice Chugh gives to those who use Legal Aid’s services is to assert their right to a timely bail hearing and not to concede to adjournments.
“Individuals have the right both to council and bail and they should not be waiting in jail,” said Chugh. “I think it is a travesty the position Legal Aid has put us in.”
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