The Criminal Lawyers’ Association is calling on the Ontario government to boost the province’s legal aid program, saying insufficient funding is leading to more accused being unrepresented and discouraging young lawyers from staying in defence law.
The association, which wrote to the province last month seeking a funding model that keeps pace with the cost of living, said it’s set to meet with the government next week to discuss the issue.
Association president Daniel Brown said stagnant legal aid funding has led to many accused having to represent themselves in Ontario courts because they don’t qualify for the program, which in turn leads to inefficiency in the justice system and places an extra burden on the courts.
“This is just a system in crisis,” Brown said in an interview on Tuesday.
Cases involving unrepresented accused can take three or four times longer than cases with criminal defence lawyers, Brown said.
“We have judges who have to spend time teaching self-represented accused persons how to defend themselves. They have to equip them with the knowledge and they have to spend extra time with them in courts,” he said.
“[The accused] have long meandering questions and convoluted legal applications that often don’t go anywhere because they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s like the equivalent to somebody trying to do their own open heart surgery. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
The low income cutoff for legal aid falls well below the poverty line, Brown noted.
“Somebody who is making a minimum wage job would not qualify for legal aid,” he said. “Quite frankly, they wouldn’t have any hope of paying for private counsel, especially in the complex cases in the Superior Court.”
Betty Vavougios, president of Ontario