In the spring of 2019, Ontario’s legal budget was slashed by 30%. The loss of $133 million in funding was already having a detrimental impact, but those effects are now being compounded in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The resulting cuts have significantly reduced the availability and access to Legal Aid services. Meanwhile, the province continues to spend more money on policing and building new jails.
Instead of using Legal Aid funding to defend innocents or help find alternative sentencing, Ontario is increasing the number of prisons and beds in detention centres in response to overcrowding concerns. Two new jails are being built, and three upgraded. Although there are plans to provide better mental health support and address important recommendations on prisoner care, this only helps people once they have already been put into the system.
The Ford government has pledged $25 million in funding to hire 200 new police officers. Simply put, there is money available for justice services. Unfortunately, important services like Legal Aid are being passed over in favour of more visible options.
Effect of COVID on Legal Aid
To prevent jails from becoming overcrowded, Ontario Legal Aid has increased their spending and expanded services in response to the virus. The goal was to reduce prison populations and slow the viral spread. This will help to keep detention facilities safer for inmates and corrections staff.
Legal Aid funding helped to keep the courts open during the early stages of the crisis. As well, they waived financial requirements for in-custody accused and approving bail funding requests. These actions helped to keep low-risk people out of detention centers during the pandemic.
Criminal lawyers helped further these aims, volunteering their time to help free people from jail.
These extra steps were a necessary response to the crisis. Now, however, they are causing the organization to blow through its funding prematurely. As a result, Ontario will soon be unable to fund much-needed services that could leave people behind bars unnecessary and prevent access to defence lawyers.
Additionally, this will lead to further unfair treatment of impoverished and marginalized Canadians in the Justice System. The likely result of running out of funds is a high influx of prisoners. Which, in turn, will accelerate COVID-19 within the prison system.
Ontario Needs to Reexamine its Stance on Legal Aid
Creating a just system that represents the rights of all doesn’t work without the support of Legal Aid services. The province needs to increase funding to ensure fair access to legal services for everyone.
In light of the current crisis and its acceleration of Legal Aid burning through available funding, immediate actions are necessary to prevent worsening unfairness in the system and increasing viral risks.