Ontario’s already cash-strapped legal aid community is facing major cuts and providers are concerned they will not be able to support low-income Ontarians who need the protections they can provide, a panel told the delegates at the OFL’s Power of Many conference Wednesday.
Megan Stephens, Executive Director and General Counsel of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) moderated the panel, consisting of Audrey Huntley, Victims’ Rights Paralegal for Aboriginal Legal Services; Carrie Sinkowski, Community Developer at the Community Legal Clinic for Brant, Haldimand and Norfolk; Dana Fischer, Criminal Duty Counsel at Legal Aid Ontario and Local Vice-President for the Society of United Professionals; and, Bahar Shadpour, Communications Coordinator for the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO) and the Vice-President of OPSEU Local 5118.
Not only are each of their organizations seeing cuts, but cuts to one can also affect the others, said Huntley, who said Aboriginal Legal Services often relies on ACTO for their clients.
“The areas of law that we don’t have the capacity to practice in, because we are spread thin, we have always relied heavily on ACTO. The fact that their capacity is cut has an impact on the work that we can do,” she said.
Fischer voiced concern that the cuts are causing people to lose more than just access.
“There has been a drastic cut to the services that are being offered in the family courts. People that used to be able to get someone to speak on their behalf when they are losing custody of their child or access to their child,” she said. “This can be a woman fleeing domestic violence, they don’t have other options. You may not even understand your rights. I don’t think that a lot of people do.”
Shadpour said that the work being most affected by these cuts is the work to change the larger system that leaves people behind.
“ACTO, for ten years, took the provincial government to court to provide adequate and safe housing to Ontarians,” she said, noting that this type organizing power is being reduced, to the detriment of all Ontarians.