Expanding LAO’s services: the road ahead

by Nye Thomas

In my last blog, I said that Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) had met with hundreds of stakeholders to help us make informed decisions about expanding legal aid eligibility.

We recently announced the road LAO plans to take, and I am pleased to say that it is a comprehensive, multi-year plan to significantly enhance access to justice for low-income Ontarians.

The fastest increase in certificates in a quarter century

This plan increases the types of legal matters that qualify for a legal aid certificate. It also implements an important part of the provincial government’s initiative, as set out in the July 25, 2014 provincial budget, to expand access to legal aid services in Ontario.

As a result, we expect to see the most significant and rapid increase in legal aid certificates in more than 25 years.

Thousands of low-income Ontarians who have significant legal needs in very serious legal proceedings affecting their families, employment, education, and status in Canada, will benefit.

How LAO’s new services will make a difference

LAO’s new services are the first step in a multi-year plan to expand access to justice and address high-impact unmet legal needs within the legal aid system.

LAO’s new certificate services, available to financially eligible clients since June 8, include:

  • Criminal law: LAO is expanding certificate services to financially eligible vulnerable adults or youth who do not have a criminal record, irrespective of whether their liberty is at risk. LAO is also expanding certificates for financially eligible people accused of a crime who are at risk of losing their job, their education or their home. Low-income people accused of a crime in these proceedings will now have full legal representation, up to and including trials. LAO is also expanding its bail services.
  • Family law: LAO will reduce the number of unrepresented litigants in family law by expanding certificate services to eligible clients in child protection and complex family law matters. This will promote more just, timely, and sustainable resolutions to these important family cases.
  • Immigration and refugee law: LAO is expanding certificate services for eligible refugees who are facing deportation. LAO is also expanding certificates for Humanitarian and Compassionate applications.
  • Mental health law: LAO is expanding certificates services for eligible clients who wish to bring guardianship applications before the Consent and Capacity Board and the Superior Court.
  • Domestic violence: LAO is funding more targeted services for people experiencing domestic violence. It is also making certificates available to people who do not have a criminal record and who are charged with assault against their violent partner while attempting to defend themselves
  • Test cases: LAO is expanding its certificate-based test case program by introducing new criteria that broaden the public interest criteria for its long-standing Group Applications and Test Case program.

Each initiative is tailored to meet an important legal need, but they have much in common. They all aim to:

  • reduce the number of unrepresented low-income litigants
  • support vulnerable client groups and families
  • invest in services to address legal problems before they escalate
  • help low-income Ontarians avoid the life-changing consequences of a criminal record and
  • improve the administration of justice.

Nye Thomas is LAO’s Director General, Policy and Strategic Research. Nye has been leading LAO’s financial eligibility project.