Response to concerns raised by the Criminal Lawyers' Association

Posted: Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Criminal Lawyers’ Association recently shared its views and concerns about Legal Aid Ontario via a column that ran in its newsletter, Communiqué. Read what David McKillop, LAO’s Vice-President, Policy, Research & External Relations has to say.

As you may be aware, the Criminal Lawyers’ Association recently shared its views and concerns about Legal Aid Ontario via a column that ran in its newsletter, Communiqué.

Specifically, the author expressed concerns that the mental health disabilities and addictions intake tool LAO announced on July 8, 2014 will put the onus on lawyers to diagnose a person who has mental health issues, or will hamper impartial access to justice. He also alleged that LAO’s commitment to developing this tool means LAO is implementing its Mental Health Strategy without consultation. In addition, he disparaged the quality of work provided by LAO’s staff lawyers.

These are untrue allegations that are out of touch with what is happening on the ground across this province. I’d like to take this opportunity to provide you with factually accurate information.

The Mental Health Strategy intake tool

As our consultation paper points out, the starting point for our Mental Health Strategy is an analysis of client needs. Simply put, an important part of implementing this strategy includes the development of tools to help us determine the service needs and provide appropriate support for people with mental health disabilities. That’s where our mental health disabilities and addictions intake tool comes in.

This is a rights-based tool that aims to collect the best practices of experienced counsel into a set of tools that can be used at any point of contact or intake. The answers our clients provide will help LAO staff better identify clients with mental illness or addictions and ensure that clients are connected to duty counsel, clinics, and panels of lawyers with the necessary expertise to address their legal needs appropriately.

Many lawyers and community organizations recommended that LAO develop the intake tool because they understand why it is critically important for the legal aid system to better identify accommodation and multiple legal needs early in the intake process. LAO has used equivalent intake tools for the past several years to support Aboriginal clients and clients who may have experienced domestic abuse. LAO would be happy to share all of the tools it develops with clinics, the private bar, and other legal aid plans across Canada.

LAO is developing this tool with an advisory committee that met for the first time to kick off development of the project just last month. This committee consists of criminal lawyers, duty counsel, clinic lawyers, persons with lived experience, community advocates, and several leading academics.

The Canadian Mental Health Association of Ontario (CMHA Ontario) is facilitating these meetings and providing expertise in evaluating intake tool efficacy. LAO is pleased to partner with CMHA Ontario to ensure a rights-based approach to multiple and intersecting legal needs for mental health service providers in courthouses across the province.

To be absolutely clear: The intake tool is NOT a medical or clinical mental health diagnostic tool. Its purpose is NOT to help a legal professional “diagnose” a person who has mental health issues, nor will it affect anyone’s right to select the counsel of their choice.

The government’s Systems Improvement through Service Collaboratives initiative

The CLA’s Communiqué misleadingly includes a link to a document purporting to describe LAO’s Mental Health Strategy. LAO did not produce this document. The attribution of this information to LAO and accompanying CLA statements demonstrate a significant misunderstanding of our strategy.

The Systems Improvement through Service Collaboratives (SISC) document, to which the CLA provides a link, describes a multi-ministry initiative, funded under Ontario’s ten-year mental health strategy, to operate some 14 “mental health collaboratives” in cities across Ontario, including Toronto. This is not an LAO project.

LAO’s Mental Health Strategy consultations

LAO has held more than 100 consultation meetings across the province on its Mental Health Strategy since the release of its consultation paper last fall. Our consultation paper has been downloaded more than 650 times. We have received and are carefully reviewing more than 65 written submissions from across Ontario – including, at LAO’s invitation and as the CLA acknowledges, a submission from the CLA. As a result of this extensive and well-received outreach, our Mental Health Strategy is gathering momentum across the justice and mental health communities.

The CLA’s factually inaccurate criticism of this strategy detracts from the great work of LAO staff, private lawyers, clinics, mental health professionals, and organizations as the Canadian Mental Health Association, which have stepped forward to partner with us and support our work on behalf of the province’s most vulnerable people.

LAO’s relationship with the private bar

This brings me to another major point I would like to address – LAO’s relationship with the private bar. The fact is, LAO has a positive and productive working relationship with the CLA and the private bar across the province. We regularly consult with the CLA and the wider bar. Most recently, LAO sought feedback from Ontario’s bar on its second chair program, mid-level case management, and several billing and administrative irritants.

In addition, LAO and the CLA meet regularly and plan to continue to do so to “problem solve” outstanding issues. For example, in the last two months, LAO and the CLA have met to discuss mental health appeals, complex cases, Aboriginal issues, operational issues, and mentoring/training. We will continue these meetings through ongoing working groups to focus on issues of mutual concern to both organizations.

LAO’s duty counsel

Finally, I would like to point out that legal aid employees such as duty counsel play an essential role in keeping the justice system in Ontario going every day. Duty counsel are there for non-represented Ontarians who appear in every court, every day, providing more than 800,000 assists per year. Criminal lawyers across this province know they can, and often do, rely on duty counsel to act on their behalf for their clients, and many consult with duty counsel about local matters and practices.

In conclusion

I’d like to conclude by saying how much it saddens me that an organization representing Ontario’s dedicated criminal lawyers would try to gain political points on the backs of some of the most vulnerable clients we serve.

We can all be proud of our Mental Health Strategy, our ongoing outreach to Ontario’s lawyers, and of the work our lawyers and all our staff do on the frontlines every day to ensure that the rights and freedoms of low-income and vulnerable Ontarians are protected.

David McKillop
Vice Preseident, Policy, Research & External Relations
Legal Aid Ontario


Genevieve Oger
Senior Communications Media Relations Officer
Tel: (416) 979-2352 ext. 5208
Cell: (416) 768-4461