GUEST COLUMN: Ford funding cut will have real impact on Sarnia’s poor

Andrew Bolter

Premier Doug Ford’s 35% announced funding cut for Legal Aid Ontario means a 16% funding cut for Ontario’s 74 community legal clinics, including Sarnia’s.

Andrew Bolter

That will impact our Clinic’s capacity to represent clients and be a voice for those living in poverty.

CLAS — Community Legal Assistance Sarnia — was founded 30 years ago by a group of local citizens who recognized a need to help Lambton’s most economically disadvantaged residents protect and assert their legal rights.

The Sarnia Clinic provides front-line legal advice and directly represents low-income residents. We do this with a staff of six: three lawyers, one paralegal, one Indigenous Justice outreach worker, and one office manager who doubles as an intake worker. Each year, we help almost 2,000 people access justice, working with local social services to do so.

Clinics like ours are the MASH units of the legal system. We respond to urgent situations, such as landlord and tenant issues, government income through social assistance and E.I., access to health care, disability programs, workers’ rights, criminal injuries compensation, human rights, and employment rights.

Our clients struggle daily with poverty, not because they don’t want to work, but because they face barriers to employment, including physical and mental disabilities, addiction, trauma, abuse and racism.

We represent clients in courts and tribunals and provide them with information about their rights and obligations. We consult with governments, at all levels, when their actions harm our clients. We speak truth to power.

Clinics like CLAS are rooted in their communities. We are not-for-profit corporations, with a volunteer board of directors, and use our limited resources to provide the most needed front-line legal services.

To justify the cuts, Ontario’s Attorney General has asserted that Legal Aid funding has increased since 2014 while the number of clients served has decreased by 100,000. This is simply not the case.

According to the Provincial Auditor General’s 2018 report, all legal aid services, including the clinics, have increased over the past five years. The only year with a clinic decrease was last year, which, as the Auditor General clearly identified, resulted from changing an old database to a new Clinic Information Management System (CIMS), which fundamentally changed how client services are counted.

The Ontario Legal Aid system, of which legal clinics are an integral part, was significantly expanded by the Conservative Government of Bill Davis. The rule of law is the backbone of democracy, and that means legal help and representation. The Davis government and all others since have recognized that in a free and democratic society some individuals need help balancing the enormous resources of the State.

It also makes good economic sense. Research by the Canadian Bar Association has shown that every $1 spent on Legal Aid saves $6 in other societal costs.

We hope the Ford government will think again before imposing such a Draconian cut, one that will impact access to justice for the most vulnerable in our society.

To support our clinic, feel free to visit the clinic campaign website:

https://stoplegalaidcuts.nationbuilder.com/

Andrew Bolter is the Executive Director and a staff lawyer at Community Legal Assistance Sarnia