Fifty years of legal aid in Ontario

Published: March 29, 2017

By David Field, President and CEO, Legal Aid Ontario

Fifty years ago this week, this advertisement appeared in major newspapers in Ontario:

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In case you can’t read the text at the bottom, here’s what some of it says. You can also read the PDF.

A criminal or civil action, or specialized legal counsel might cost more than you can afford.

Yet justice may depend on both.

Inability to pay a lawyer is one of the last remaining obstacles to justice within the law.

This is no longer a problem in Ontario.

On March 29, 1967 a new legal assistance act became effective in Ontario. It guarantees that no resident of this province shall be denied his legal rights because of lack of money.

Fifty years ago on the morning of Wednesday, March 29, 1967, the Legal Aid Act was signed into law creating the organization then known as The Ontario Legal Aid Plan, which would be later become Legal Aid Ontario. The principles of this fledgling organization were simple: All people deserve the benefit of counsel. Justice shouldn’t be just for the rich and the privileged.

Previously, if you were too poor to afford a lawyer, your options were to represent yourself, or a judge could force a private bar lawyer to represent you as a “charity case”. The advent of legal aid meant a third, better option: funding to allow people who couldn’t afford a lawyer the access to justice everybody has.

The principal speaker for the opposition in the debate on the bill said, “I think that there are few members in this House who will say that it is not an advance step over anything we have known before, and probably will result in the Province of Ontario having a system of legal aid as good as anything that exists in the western world.” One Toronto newspaper editorialized that it was “the most advanced social welfare programme on the continent since Saskatchewan exploded medicare.”

Since that day when legal aid started in Ontario, it hasn’t always been easy. There have been bumps in the road, as we have re-thought and re-worked how we deliver services, but our commitment to provide low-income Ontarians access to justice has never wavered. Last year, Legal Aid Ontario assisted about 840,000 low-income Ontarians through private bar lawyers and duty counsel at courthouses and legal aid clinics throughout Ontario. This week, the Province of Ontario announced we will be expanding eligibility for legal aid, allowing even more people access to important legal services.

This is something we should all celebrate. For 50 years, all of us who have worked at Legal Aid Ontario have helped low-income Ontarians navigate what can be a complicated and often overwhelming legal system in Ontario. Through the commitment and dedication of our staff, we have served people who are the most disadvantaged; people who are recent immigrants or refugees, those who are homeless, dealing with mental health or addiction issues, or facing domestic abuse.

We help all these people and more. And we’ve done this for 50 years, continuing the promise made in the original ad promoting legal aid in Ontario on day one of its existence. To provide “the most advanced solution in the world to the problem of legal assistance. And it’s purpose is to render justice to every(one) under the law.”