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History of Legal Aid Ontario
Ontario first implemented an organized
legal aid plan in 1951. Applications went 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 that it made
excessive demands on the volunteer lawyers.
The Birth of the Ontario Legal Aid Plan (OLAP)
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, while
being administered on a day to day basis by the Law Society of Upper
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
The Development of Legal Clinics in
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
thirteen 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
Until the 1980's, 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 1990's. Indeed, in the early
1990's 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.
The Crisis in Legal Aid
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.
The advisory committee 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
government introduced legislation in late 1998 that creates an
independent agency called Legal Aid Ontario (LAO). The purpose of
the new corporation is to promote access to justice throughout
Ontario for low-income individuals. The Legal Aid Services Act,
1998, establishes the following mandate for LAO:
To promote access to justice throughout Ontario
for low-income individuals by providing high quality legal aid
To encourage and facilitate
flexibility and innovation in the provision of legal aid
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
Legal Aid's Certificate Services
Legal Aid Offices in 48 communities receive and process client
applications and issue legal aid certificates to financially
eligible people. Legal aid certificates allow clients to receive
legal services from their choice of a private lawyer or from lawyers
employed by Legal Aid Ontario at family law offices and the refugee
law office. Certificates are available for a variety of legal
problems, including specific criminal, family, immigration and
refugee matters, and some civil law matters (for example, Workplace
Safety and Insurance Appeal Tribunal hearings and mental health law
proceedings). The lawyer is then reimbursed by legal aid according
to a tariff fixed by government regulation.
People with little or no income, or on social assistance usually
qualify for legal aid. The legal aid office looks at each person's
financial circumstances and the type of legal problem to decide on
The financial test is based on both income and assets, and takes
into account monthly expenses. In some cases, the client may be
asked to make some financial contribution to the cost of their legal
Clients in Hastings and Prince Edward Counties have a legal aid
office in Belleville. The legal aid office in Napanee serves clients
in Lennox & Addington County.
Community Legal Clinics
Legal advice and representation is also available through 70+
independent community legal clinics to clients who have problems
such as housing, social assistance, pensions, workers' compensation,
and employment insurance. Clinic lawyers and community legal workers
provide representation, advice, public legal education and
information and advocate on behalf of disadvantaged communities.
In 2001, Legal Aid Ontario began expanding clinic service available
in Ontario to include some underserviced areas of the province. As
part of this expansion, the Community Advocacy & Legal Centre now
provides legal services in the previously unserviced areas of
Bancroft and Trenton.
Each clinic is governed by its board of directors who are
representative of and responsive to the needs of the clients and
their communities. Some clinics arrange for duty counsel to provide
assistance at administrative tribunals. Services at individual
clinics vary. The Board of Directors may prioritize services
depending on the location, local resources and the needs of the
Community legal clinics include specialized legal services to groups
such as the disabled, elderly, injured workers, and native people.
These clinics include the
Advocacy Centre for the Elderly,
Justice for Children
Advocacy Resource Centre for the Handicapped, Injured Workers'
Consultants, Industrial Accident Victims Group of Ontario, the
Self-Help Centre, and
Legal Services of Toronto.
Community Legal Education Ontario is devoted to the production
of public legal education materials for clinic client groups.
information booklet prepared by the
Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario (ACLCO):
Community Legal Clinics in Ontario: Ensuring Access to Justice.
Read the paper by Mary Jane Mossman, entitled
Community Legal Clinics in Ontario, published in 1983 (Windsor
Yearbook of Access to Justice 3: 375-402). Professor Mossman
explores the forces that led to the establishment of the community
clinics, their relationships to the judicare system and the purposes
behind the government's assumption of responsibility for funding and
defunding clinics: service to low income people, community
involvement and representation and independence from funding
Duty counsel are lawyers assigned to
courts to assist clients who do not have a lawyer with them in the
courtroom. In the criminal courts, duty counsel advise clients of
their right to plead guilty or not guilty, help them apply for bail
or to ask for an adjournment. Duty counsel also represent clients at
bail hearings, pleas of guilty and sentencing.
In family court, two duty counsel are regularly scheduled on motion
or other list days so that both sides of a family dispute can
receive legal advice and representation.
Duty counsel also accompany circuit courts in remote areas and
attend immigration hearings in Toronto and Mississauga. Legal Aid
provides a 24-hour telephone advice service for persons in custody,
and for young offenders asking advice about alternative measures.
Legal Aid Ontario is exploring the idea of offering permanent duty
counsel for tenants at housing tribunals across the province. The
Community Advocacy & Legal Centre currently offers duty counsel at
hearings of the housing tribunal in Belleville.
Legal Aid Advice Lawyer
The Advice Lawyer
is a service open to the public, operating between three to four
hours a week. The Advice Lawyer deals with family law matters.
Lawyers who are paid an hourly rate by legal aid provide advice,
assistance and review documents in over 83 communities of the
province. Clients may have to qualify financially before getting
help, but the service is free for people with no income or on social
Currently, clients of the Community Advocacy & Legal Centre can
access an advice lawyer at the legal aid offices in Belleville and
of Legal Aid and the Clinic System in Ontario, 1967-2003
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