- Michael Spratt
When Legal Aid is a political prop, Access to justice suffers
No one ever wins when politicians play political games with legal aid. The inevitable result of the needless politicking is decreased access to justice and unfairness in our courts. And, as the recent dust-up over legal aid in Ontario has shown, politicians don’t win either – more often than not, regardless of political stripe, politicians who play games with access to justice are exposed as callous, partisan and hypocritical.
This time it all began in April, when the Ontario government slashed funding to Legal Aid Ontario by 30 per cent. The cuts made no real difference to Ontario’s bottom line but punching down on access to justice was on-brand for the Ford government.
To compound the disastrous impacts of the slashed funding, the $133 million cut took effect immediately – there was no advanced notice – despite the fact that LAO's 2019 budget had already been finalized. And on top of it all, the province directed LAO that no provincial money at all could be used to cover immigration and refugee law, meaning that vulnerable immigrants and refugees would face deportation hearings without any legal counsel.
You see, Doug Downey, Ontario’s Attorney General, believes that that federal government should carry all costs for immigration and refugee services. But instead of talking to his federal counterparts Downey was happy to use immigrants and refugees as political pawns. With no provincial legal-aid funding, injustice and unfairness was all but guaranteed, unless the federal government stepped in to fill the funding gap. Downey was happy to risk the lives of some of Ontario’s most vulnerable over a 25-million-dollar funding dispute.
Ultimately, Justin Trudeau and the federal government did the only thing they could do and capitulated to Downey’s demands to increase federal funding to the immigrant and refugee legal aid system.
But despite that fact that the Trudeau government has passed laws that will lead to more deportations and more immigration unfairness, Trudeau could not help putting his virtue-signaling partisan spin on things saying that “There's conservative politicians [who] keep trying to move us back and make the most vulnerable hurt for the decisions that they make. Conservative politicians like to say they're for the people but they end up cutting services for the most vulnerable. It's what they do."
A politician can’t help but politic. It is an election year after all.
However, the scope of Ford’s cruel legal aid cuts stretches well beyond immigration hearings.