About Legal Aid Ontario

Historical Overview

Providing equal access to justice for low-income individuals has remained the guiding principle for legal aid services since they were first introduced to Ontario over 30 years ago.

1950s: Volunteer Service

Ontario first implemented an organized legal aid plan for criminal cases in 1951. Lawyers provided legal assistance on a volunteer basis.

By 1963, the Ontario government and the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) decided that the voluntary plan was not adequately meeting the demand for legal aid and that it made excessive demands on the volunteer lawyers.

1960s: England and Scotland Model Adopted

In 1967, the Ontario Legal Aid Plan (OLAP) was created based on the legal aid plans operating in England and Scotland. The plan was financed by the provincial government and managed by LSUC.

1970s: Clinics Created

Community clinics were first established in the early 1970s to provide legal services, public legal information and community development for low-income and disadvantaged people.

Clinics address the unique legal needs of low-income people who need help with the essentials of life, such as subsistence income and safe housing, and access to the most basic social services, such as education for children.

1980s: OLAP Expands

Until the 1980s, the major focus of OLAP had been criminal law. Between 1980 and 1990, OLAP expanded its clinic, family, refugee, mental health, and Aboriginal services considerably. Services continued to expand in the 1990s.

In the early 1990s, at the height of a recession, OLAP was issuing more than 200,000 certificates a year for a broad range of criminal, family, refugee, and other civil claims.

Early 1990s: A Time of Constraints

Funding for the clinic system was frozen in 1992, despite the fact that large areas of the province were still without clinic law services.

In 1994, the Ontario 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.

1997: Review

In 1997, law professor John McCamus led a review of OLAP. His report, titled "A Blueprint for Publicly Funded Legal Services," was released in September 1997. He recommended the creation of an independent body to govern OLAP and 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.

1998: The Legal Aid Services Act

The government introduced The Legal Aid Services Act, 1998, to create an independent agency called Legal Aid Ontario (LAO).

  • A new Chair and board of directors is named to govern LAO. After extensive consultation with stakeholders, client groups and the legal profession, the board developed a four-year strategic plan. The plan outlined LAO's vision statement, values and strategic directions for the organization as well as performance measures.
  • Today LAO is the second largest justice agency in Ontario. LAO is one of the largest providers of legal services in North America covering a range of legal aid services such as criminal, family, mental health, aboriginal law, clinic law, and refugee law.

LAO: the first five years

  • Eight new advisory committees have been established, consisting of almost 100 community representatives, lawyers and other service providers. The role of these committees is to ensure that people with an interest in legal aid have regular input on and access to LAO decisions.

LAO, in cooperation with its justice partners, built a business case for tariff reform and presented it to the Government of Ontario. In 2002, the government granted the first tariff increase in over 15 years including a 28 per cent increase in duty counsel rates and special northern rates.

LAO completed the expansion of its clinics with the opening of five new general service clinics, two specialty clinics, the Income Security Advocacy Centre and the Advocacy Centre for Tenants-Ontario, including providing legal services in French to the Ontario Francophone community, and expanded ten existing clinics. With this achievement, for the first time legal services were available to all Ontario residents within their own communities."

LAO developed and implemented the first ever memorandum of understanding (MOU) and funding agreements with the community legal clinic system and with student legal aid services societies (SLASS). The MOU sets out the roles and responsibilities of LAO and individual clinics and SLASSs.

  • Launched a multi-year technological project called Total Service Network (TSN). Started in 2001, it will be implemented in 2004. TSN will replace LAO's outdated technology systems with one more flexible, integrated system. TSN's Internet-based system will build a new electronic business relationship with lawyers and streamline and simplify interaction with Legal Aid Ontario.