Author ORCID Identifier
Amar Bhatia: 0000-0001-7375-8902
Response or Comment
Schedule 16 of Bill 161, the Smarter and Stronger Justice Act, will replace, if passed, the Legal Aid Services Act, 1998 (LASA 1998) with a new Legal Aid Services Act, 2019 (LASA 2019).
The Bill, if passed, will have profoundly negative impacts on the clients and communities served by Ontario’s community legal clinics and community-driven boards. These clinics engage in “clinic law” through: a) the determination of their communities’ legal needs; b) the provision of individual and collective legal services to provide access to justice in numerous and intersecting areas of law; and c) the development and reform of the law as it systemically affects low-income and other disadvantaged communities. Bill 161 seriously weakens the ability of community legal clinics to engage in meaningful, sufficiently funded legal work to address the everyday violations of legal rights of low-income individuals and disadvantaged communities.
More particularly, if passed, LASA 2019 will:
1. Significantly limit the scope of “clinic law” services in Ontario and thus fundamentally change the statutory mandate of community legal clinics;
2. Dramatically alter community legal clinics’ ability to engage in systemic law reform and community organizing aimed at the roots of low-income people’s everyday legal issues;
3. Weaken the ability of community legal clinics and their independent boards to adequately determine and respond to the needs of low-income and disadvantaged communities; and
4. Diminish opportunities to educate future lawyers in community-based advocacy.
Furthermore, there is reason to believe that additional restrictions on the structure and scope of community legal clinics would flow from the implementation of LASA 2019 given the provincial government’s recent cuts to the legal aid system, the limitations placed on law reform and community organizing work during Legal Aid Ontario (LAO)’s implementation of these cuts, and the stated goals of the ongoing (and confidential) “Legal Aid Modernization Project.” In particular, Schedule 15 of Bill 161 will cancel all existing funding agreements between community legal clinics and LAO, which must be renegotiated within six months of the Bill coming into force. There is serious concern that such high-pressure, behind-the-scenes negotiations will result in further restrictions on clinic practice, funding, and independence.
In summary, LASA 2019 will limit the capacity of legal clinics and their boards to properly assess and address community legal needs, and the government’s approach will deepen and extend poverty and marginalization in the province. We strongly recommend that the Ontario Legislature reject Schedules 15 and 16 of Bill 161 and instead engage in public, meaningful, and open consultations with low-income and marginalized communities and their clinics about needed reforms to the legal aid system in Ontario.
Bhatia, Amar; Mosher, Janet; Rogin, Jillian A.; Smyth, Gemma; Sobat, Erin; and Wiseman, David, "Neither Smarter nor Stronger: Bill 161 is a Step Backwards for Access to Justice and Community-Based Legal Services in Ontario" (2020). Commissioned Reports, Studies and Public Policy Documents. Paper 231.