History of Legal Aid in Ontario

Legal Aid OntarioOntario first implemented an organized legal aid plan in 1951. Applications from people who needed legal help were sent to local committees, which assigned a lawyer to eligible clients. Those lawyers provided legal assistance on a volunteer basis. By 1963, the Ontario government and the Law Society of Upper Canada decided that the voluntary plan was not adequately meeting the demand for legal aid and made excessive demands on the volunteer lawyers.

Ontario Legal Aid Plan

In 1967, the Ontario government introduced legislation to create the Ontario Legal Aid Plan. The joint committee which recommended the creation of a formal system of legal assistance extensively researched the pros and cons of the basic American approach to legal aid, including assigned counsel, voluntary defenders, public defenders and mixed private and public systems, but in the end rejected all of them.

The Ontario system was eventually based on the legal aid plans operating in England and Scotland. In these systems private lawyers represent clients on legal aid certificates and are paid for their services on the basis of fair compensation for their work. Ontario’s approach remained unique, in that it also included the provision of duty counsel lawyers for unrepresented people in criminal courts. The Plan was to be financed by the provincial government, and administered on a day-to-day basis by the Law Society of Upper Canada.

Providing equal access to justice for poor people has remained the guiding principle for the Ontario Legal Aid Plan since the introduction of that legislation more than 30 years ago.

While this system was seen to provide significant benefits to financially needy persons it did not ensure legal service to all who needed it. In fact, the Plan was considered to have serious “gaps” and those gaps were described in the Grange Commission’s Report on Clinical Funding as follows:

“(a) The poor were not always aware of the assistance available under the Plan, or even of their legal rights, and if they were, they were not always willing to seek out that assistance and those rights.

(b) The coverage under the Plan was for reasons of economy and legal efficiency limited to serious problems. But the problems of the poor, though not serious in the traditional sense, have for them very serious consequences indeed. For example, a tenant’s dispute with his landlord might involve very little in terms of dollars, but for him might be a matter of survival.

(c) The problems of the poor too often by their very nature fall outside the traditional skills of the private Bar and have come to be known as Poverty Law. They include such matters as Unemployment Insurance, Welfare, Pensions, Immigration, Workman’s Compensation, where not only advice but advocacy is sorely needed and vital.

(d) The private Bar and its clients know that it is sometimes not sufficient merely to resolve the immediate problem. Often the client’s welfare dictates much more. He must know the dangers in order to avoid them in the future and if they cannot be avoided, he may have to combine with others to attack the root of the problem which perhaps can only be done in the councils or legislatures of the land. Services such as these are well within the field of the private Bar and if the aim of Legal Aid as often stated is the rendering to the poor of the same legal benefits as those available to their more fortunate brothers, some method needed to be found to provide them.

(e) The coverage provided by a Legal Aid certificate is limited to assistance in respect of a specific legal problem. But often the legal problems of the poor are associated with and cannot be divorced from their social, economic and personal concerns. What was needed was a system which could take a more comprehensive approach to the problems of the poor.”

Legal Clinics in Ontario

Parkdale Legal Clinic in Toronto was established in 1971 in part to address some of the shortcomings in the Legal Aid Certificate program. Early in 1976 a body known as the Clinic Funding Committee was set up as a Committee of the Law Society to administer legal clinics and at the same time funds were made available for the establishment of seven new clinics. By the beginning of the 1976-77 fiscal year, a total of 13 clinics had been funded. By 1988, there were 44  legal clinics, and by 2001, there were over 70.

Legal aid today is available across Ontario, to lower-income people for a variety of legal problems, including criminal matters, family disputes, immigration and refugee hearings. Legal clinics address areas of poverty law such as landlord/tenant disputes, social assistance, debt, and employment issues.

Every Ontario resident and, in certain cases, non-residents requiring legal assistance can apply. Eligibility is based on financial need and the type of case. The applicant may pay nothing or a portion of the costs of the legal aid, depending on their financial situation.

Until the 1980s, the major focus of the Ontario Legal Aid Plan (OLAP) had been criminal law. Between 1980 and 1990, however, the Plan considerably expanded its clinic, family, refugee, mental health, and aboriginal services.

Services continued to expand in the 1990s. Indeed, in the early 1990s, OLAP was issuing more than 200,000 certificates a year for a broad range of criminal, family, refugee, and other civil claims (including certificates for mental health proceedings, administrative hearings and a variety of property actions). Funding for the clinic system was frozen in 1992, despite the fact that large areas of the province were still without clinic law services.

In 1994, the provincial government capped funding for the certificate program. Over the next couple of years, certificate services dropped significantly. In 1996-97, OLAP issued approximately 75,000 certificates, a reduction of more than 150,000 certificates from just a few years earlier. The number of hours available on certificates was also cut significantly, as were the number of OLAP staff.

In response to this crisis, the Ontario government appointed law professor John McCamus to head a review of the Ontario Legal Aid Plan. A Blueprint for Publicly Funded Legal Services, the Report of the Ontario Legal Aid Review, was released in September 1997 and recommended the creation of an independent body to govern the Plan. It also recommended experimentation with service delivery models such as the use of staff lawyers, contracting and wider use of duty counsel, with more focus on serving client needs.

Legal Aid Ontario – An Independent Agency

The Ontario government introduced legislation in late 1998 that created an independent agency called Legal Aid Ontario (LAO). The purpose of the new corporation was to promote access to justice throughout Ontario for low-income individuals. The Legal Aid Services Act, 1998, established the following mandate for LAO:

  • To promote access to justice throughout Ontario for low-income individuals by providing high quality legal aid services
  • To encourage and facilitate flexibility and innovation in the provision of legal aid services
  • To recognize the diverse legal needs of low-income individuals and disadvantaged communities
  • To operate within a framework of accountability for the expenditure of public funds

As part of its mandate under the Legal Aid Services Act, 1998, Legal Aid Ontario is committed to identifying, assessing and recognizing the diverse legal needs of low-income individuals and disadvantaged communities. LAO provides legal aid services by any method it considers appropriate, including certificates, staff offices, duty counsel, community legal clinics, public legal education, summary assistance, alternative dispute resolution and self-help materials.

Operating with guaranteed funding from the government, Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) was finally able to begin expanding services moderately, beginning in 1997 and 1998. In 1999, the new board of LAO held consultations with various stakeholders of legal aid, and requested ideas and proposals on how to improve or expand legal aid services and access to those services. Stakeholders were asked to identify client needs that were not currently being met and to recommend specific program initiatives that would meet those needs.

Based on those consultations, the board approved 29 new and enhanced service initiatives, which will improve access to legal assistance for low income Ontarians. Each of these initiatives was developed and implemented during 2000.

Legal Aid’s Programs and Services

Legal Aid has a mixed delivery system – it offers clients a wide variety of services, depending on the client’s needs. Legal aid is available through the certificate program, which entitles clients to receive advice and representation by private lawyers or by Legal Aid staff lawyers and through the community legal clinic program. Clients without their own lawyer receive advice and limited representation from duty counsel lawyers at the courts and the housing tribunal, and advice lawyers are available in various community locations.

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