Legal Aid Ontario

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Legal Aid Ontario (LAO)
Legal Aid Ontario 2010.gif
Agency overview
Formed 1998
Preceding agency
  • Ontario Legal Aid Plan (OLAP)
Type Legal aid provision
Jurisdiction Ontario
Headquarters 40 Dundas Street West
Toronto, Ontario
Employees 501–1000
Annual budget $362.7 m CAN (2008)
Agency executive
  • David Field, President and CEO
Parent agency Ministry of Attorney General

Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) is a publicly funded and publicly accountable non-profit corporation, responsible for administering the legal aid program in the province of Ontario, Canada. Through a toll-free number and multiple in-person locations such as courthouse offices, duty counsel and community clinics, the organisation provides legal assistance to a million low-income Ontario residents each year.[1]

About the organisation[edit]

Established in 1998 through the Legal Aid Services Act[2] and successor to the Ontario Legal Aid Plan (OLAP), Legal Aid Ontario is a not-for-profit corporation that provides legal aid services to low-income individuals in the province of Ontario through duty counsel, community legal clinics, public legal education, summary legal advice, alternative dispute resolution, self-help materials and legal representation under the 'judicare' model.

Legal issues that are covered by Legal Aid Ontario include matters involving domestic violence, family law, child custody, refugee and immigration hearings, and poverty law. Legal Aid Ontario also provides assistance in criminal cases where the accused faces a substantial likelihood of incarceration. As many offences are considered hybrid, that being the courts may decide to prosecute as either a summary or indictable offence, legal aid applicants are assessed on a case-by-case basis.


A component of Legal Aid Ontario’s services are provided through the 77 community clinics[3] (62 community clinics, 15 specialty clinics)[4] and six Student Legal Aid Services Societies[5] located throughout the province. Funded by Legal Aid Ontario, these organizations provide legal advice, and in some cases representation, primarily for civil law matters.

Community clinics[edit]

Community clinics are situated throughout the province and provide legal assistance to low-income individuals within a specific geographic area of Ontario. While social assistance and housing law are two key areas community clinics assist with, clinics may also tailor their services offered for the geographic location from which they operate. Services that are provided by the community clinics may include:

Clinics also play a large role in the provision of workshops and information sessions and the undertaking of law reform initiatives. Many clinics also publish brochures, booklets, pamphlets and fact sheets for the benefit of the general public.

Specialty clinics[edit]

Specialty clinics provide low-income individuals with assistance in a specific area of law not normally covered by the general community legal clinics. These clinics focus on issues such as:

  • minority and specialty language group rights
  • children, youth and elderly assistance
  • individuals with disabilities (including injured workers)
  • HIV & AIDS matters

Specialty clinics will typically provide summary legal advice and free representation to clients who meet their eligibility guidelines. Specialty clinics also provide legal assistance to, and consult with, private bar lawyers, MPPs and community agencies.

Student Legal Aid Services Societies[edit]

Student Legal Aid Services Societies (SLASS) clinics are designed to provide law students with practical legal training and experience. Staffed by law students under the supervision of lawyers, SLASS clinics provide legal advice and representation on matters such as criminal law, tenant issues, employee rights and small claims court. SLASS clinics also typically provide free legal assistance for students enrolled at the university and in some cases, assistance for students attending a local college.

SLASS operates out of the seven law schools in Ontario:


In 2011 ONSC 7476 (CanLII)[6] the Honourable Mr. Justice Pazaratz issued a 74 paragraph cost award of $11,500 against a mother who was funded by Legal Aid Ontario. In the case the Honourable Mr. Justice Pazaratz identified a common pattern of behaviour unaddressed by the Ontario Ombudsman and Legal Aid Ontario:

58. The dynamics on this file are all too common, and cry out for judicial awareness. In a troubled economy we are seeing more self-represented parties in Family Court, and certainly more people with limited finances. Inevitably, these ingredients create greater strains on the administration of justice. Combined with limited judicial resources, the need to encourage settlement and discourage inappropriate behaviour by litigants has never been more pressing.

59. With Legal Aid tightening eligibility rules, it is likely that just about any litigant retaining counsel on a certificate will have trouble paying costs if they lose. But combining a “free lawyer” with a perceived immunity from costs is a dangerous mix. Dangerous for opposing litigants. Dangerous for children, whose lives are needlessly disrupted by bitter and unnecessary litigation. And dangerous for a Family Court system whose resources are already strained.

60. In the case at bar, the Applicant conducted herself as if her Legal Aid certificate amounted to a blank cheque – unlimited resources which most unrepresented Respondents would be hard-pressed to match. A scheduled 3-4 day trial turned into 17 days, largely because the Applicant fought every issue and pursued every dubious allegation, to the bitter end. She appeared to make up evidence and allegations as she went along. She defied court orders directly impacting on the child, even while the trial was underway. There have to be consequences. Either we sanction this irresponsible and destructive behaviour, or we invite more of the same.

61. Encouraging settlement and discouraging inappropriate behaviour by litigants is important in all litigation – but particularly in family law, and most particularly in custody cases. No litigant should perceive they have “wings” – the ability to say or do anything they want in court, without consequences.
— The Honourable Mr. Justice Pazaratz,

In February 2008, the organization was criticized in an 87-page report by the Ontario Ombudsman for a mishandling of funds in the legal defence of Richard Wills. The report, A Test of Wills, explains: "Legal Aid Ontario had estimated that Mr. Wills’ defence would cost $50,000. When it was done, it in fact cost more than a million dollars." Mr. Wills, considered to be a person of means to fund his own defence, was charged with the murder of his longtime lover. In the months preceding his trial he had transferred his assets into his wife's name. Subsequently, he applied to Legal Aid Ontario where he was effectively provided a “no check/blank cheque” defence.[7]

History of legal aid in Ontario[edit]


In partnership with the legal profession, the provincial government passed the Law Society Amendment Act, 1951.[8] The plan outlined the creation of a small fund to cover its operation, however lawyers who provided assistance did so entirely pro-bono and without any remuneration for their services.[9]


In 1967, modeled on similar doctrines in England and Scotland,[10] the Legal Aid Act was passed. Several major changes from the Law Society Amendment Act saw the division of responsibility between the province and the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) in the funding and management of legal assistance. The act also initiated the development of the certificate and duty counsel program and addressed what types of offences would be covered, with criminal offences that faced a serious risk of incarceration and family matters in the Superior Court both provided for.[11]


By the early 1970s many lawyers felt that the model of legal assistance being delivered did not provide clients with sufficient representation. These advocates argued that not only were the legal issues of legal aid clients considerably different than those of the typical paying customer, but that the means of providing service were also different. Part of this problem was the absence of lawyers interested in supporting financially disadvantaged clients with so-called ‘poverty law’ matters, that being ones primarily dealing with public assistance, tenant issues and welfare rights.[12] The development of community legal clinics alleviated this problem by providing low-income people an easy to access location for issues such as subsistence income, safe housing and access to social services. By the end of the 1970s many of these recommendations became incorporated into the 1978 study, Report of the Commission on Clinical Funding[13] and ultimately played a significant role in the development of the Ontario Legal Aid Plan, the precursor to the development of Legal Aid Ontario.[14]


Over the next decade, the Ontario Legal Aid Plan (OLAP) would quickly grow both physically as the organization expanded its clinic base, and financially as operation costs began to increase substantially. By the early 1990s and at the peak of the recession, OLAP was issuing more than 200,000 certificates a year and covering a broad range of criminal, family, refugee, and other civil claims. At the same time, the number of community clinics had grown from 35 in 1980 to 66 in 1990, with costs jumping from $3.3 million annually to $22.1 million.[15]


As demand for legal assistance grew, expenses began to quickly escalate. By 1992 and in light of a recession, the province responded by freezing funding, despite the fact that large areas of the province were still without clinic law service.[16] By 1994, despite outcry from legal aid practitioners and clients, the province reduced funding to the certificate program by $27.5 million. This cap resulted in a steep decline of certificates granted; more than 150,000 fewer certificates were issued from 1994 to 1999. Emphasis began to shift towards alternative service delivery models such as the use of staff lawyers, duty counsel and Student Legal Aid Services Societies.

In 1998 and in response to the growing need for legal aid, the Mike Harris Progressive Conservative government, on recommendation by the 1997 report A Blueprint for Publicly Funded Legal Services: the Report of the Ontario Legal Aid Review,[17] introduced the Legal Aid Services Act which outlined the creation of an independent agency called Legal Aid Ontario (LAO).[18] The act defined LAO as independent from, but accountable to, the Ontario government through the Ministry of the Attorney General. LAO would become the sole agency for establishing, administering, and monitoring the legal aid system within the province, and was granted the ability to “provide legal aid services by any method that it considers appropriate, having regard to the needs of low-income individuals… and the costs of providing such services and the Corporation’s financial resources.”[19]

Recent years[edit]

Today, Legal Aid Ontario is the second largest justice agency in Ontario and one of the largest providers of legal services in North America. LAO provides assistance for a range of legal issues such as criminal, family, mental health, aboriginal, clinic (poverty), and refugee law matters and can provide referrals for individuals seeking help outside of LAO’s jurisdiction.[20] Individuals who are granted a certificate do however need to consult and choose their own certified lawyer.[21]

In recent years, and in response to economic, client, and government pressures to improve service and reduce costs, LAO has begun adopting modern approaches to service provision. Some of these changes have included the development of a toll-free number that provides service in over 120 languages, information sharing with the Ministry of Community & Social Services for social assistance eligibility information, and the expansion of courthouse services.

For clients, these changes have resulted in the ability to apply for a legal aid certificate, receive summary legal advice and be referred to relevant services without the burden of lengthy travels; a common complaint for those living outside major cities. Clients who satisfy the criteria for legal assistance typically receive confirmation of approval the same day, thereby reducing both the time delay and need to reconnect with a Legal Aid Ontario staff worker.[22]

Other notable changes include:

  • Relocating the headquarters, shrinking office space by 20,000 square feet (1,900 m2) at a saving of $1 million annually[23]
  • Enforcing stringent requirements for LAO lawyers to ensure clients receive fair representation[24][25]
  • Encouraging community clinics to identify administrative savings[26][27][28]

In September 2009, the provincial government announced that it would invest an additional $150 million in Legal Aid Ontario over four years to help enhance family and criminal law services. While funding from the Law Foundation of Ontario dropped significantly as a result of the financial crisis of 2007–2010, this contribution from the province was not earmarked for addressing the deficit,[29][30] and has instead been restricted to funding new client services.

In the late 2010 period, Legal Aid Ontario hired senior lawyers to create the Major Case Management Office. These staff lawyers take on criminal trials, especially serious ones. In 2013, LAO started to hire "senior litigators" to fulfill the task of "filling in the gap" of services. For many in the private bar, and especially the Criminal Lawyers Association, MCMO and the senior litigators are the precursors to a public defender system.


Funding for Legal Aid Ontario comes primarily from the Province of Ontario and the Law Foundation of Ontario (LFO). The LFO administers the interest earned on lawyers' trust fund balances and Legal Aid Ontario receives 75 per cent of this income, resulting in revenue levels highly dependent on the Bank of Canada overnight rate and real estate activity levels.

The Federal government of Canada provides a portion of funding to contribute to criminal, immigration and refugee law and Youth Criminal Justice Act matters as well as other expenditures that fall under the Federal government's jurisdiction.

Revenue ($ millions)[R 1] 2004  % 2005  % 2006  % 2007  % 2008  %
Province of Ontario[R 2] $256.1 85.46 $254.8 88.06 $260.5 84.23 $269.1 79.22 $283.9 78.28
Law Foundation of Ontario $24.2 8.08 $18.6 6.44 $30.7 9.93 $51.5 15.17 $56.4 15.56
Client Contributions $13.1 4.37 $15.2 3.94 $15.7 5.07 $17.3 3.43 $18.9 5.23
Judgements, Costs & Settlements $1.7 0.57 $1.5 0.52 $0.28 0.09 $0.41 0.12 $0.28 0.08
Investment & Other Income $4.6 1.53 $3 1.03 $2.1 0.69 $1.4 0.40 $3.1 0.86
Total $299.6 $289.3 $293.1 $339.7 $362.6
  1. ^ Funding chart (2008)
  2. ^ Province of Ontario funding includes the Federal Government contributions listed below.
Contributions ($ millions) 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Federal government contributions $50.6 $50.6 $50.7 $50.7 $50.4

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [ "About LAO."] Legal Aid Ontario. Accessed June 24, 2010.
  2. ^ Legal Aid Services Act, S.O. 1998, c.26. Accessed July 29, 2010
  3. ^ "Legal Aid Ontario: Contact and Location Info - Community Legal Clinics" Legal Aid Ontario / Aide Juridique Ontario. Accessed July 2, 2010.
  4. ^ "Legal Aid Ontario: Contact and Location Info - Specialty Clinics" Legal Aid Ontario / Aide Juridique Ontario. Accessed July 2, 2010.
  5. ^ "Legal Aid Ontario: Contact and Location Info - Student Legal Aid Services Societies" Legal Aid Ontario / Aide Juridique Ontario. Accessed July 2, 2010.
  6. ^ 2011 ONSC 7476 (CanLII),, 2011 
  7. ^ A Test of Wills (PDF), Ombudsman Ontario, 2008 
  8. ^ The Law Society Amendment Act, 1951, S.O., 1951
  9. ^ Levy H.J.. “In Effective Utilization of Private Lawyers in Indigent Defense: The Ontario Approach” in William F McDonald (ed) Defense Counsel. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc, 1983. 171–193.
  10. ^ Robins, Jon (March 12, 2009). "Introducing the justice gap.". The Guardian. London. Retrieved April 22, 2010. 
  11. ^ Attorney General / Ministère du Procureur général. Accessed July 2, 2010.
  12. ^ Abramowicz, Lenny. "The Critical Characteristics of Community Legal Aid Clinics in Ontario." Journal of Law and Social Policy 19 (2004): 70.
  13. ^ McMurtry, R. Roy (1997). "Celebrating a quarter century of community legal clinics in Ontario." (PDF). Osgoode Hall Law Journal. 35 (3). pp. 425–430. Retrieved June 9, 2010. 
  14. ^ Grange, Hon. S.G.M. Ontario, Commission on Clinical Funding, Report of the Commission on Clinical Funding. Toronto: The Commission, 1978.
  15. ^ "Chapter 2: Development of the Legal Aid System in Ontario." Ministry of the Attorney General / Ministère du Procureur général. Accessed July 2, 2010. Table 2.1: Total Number of Certificates Issued and Annual Cost of Plan
  16. ^ The Toronto Star. "Hampton set to crack down on legal aid." Toronto Star, June 9, 1992, sec. News
  17. ^ "A Blueprint for Publicly Funded Legal Services: the Report of the Ontario Legal Aid Review". Ontario Legal Aid Review. 1997. Retrieved July 6, 2010. 
  18. ^ Legal Aid Services Act, s.3
  19. ^ Legal Aid Services Act, s.14.1
  20. ^ "Historical Overview.” Legal Aid Ontario / Aide Juridique Ontario. Accessed July 2, 2010.
  21. ^ Legal Aid Services Act, s.85.1
  22. ^ "LAO client “hot” line – record numbers using toll-free services." Legal Aid Ontario / Aide Juridique Ontario. Accessed July 2, 2010.
  23. ^ Legal Aid Ontario on the move. "Legal Aid Ontario: Newsroom." Legal Aid Ontario / Aide Juridique Ontario. Accessed July 2, 2010.
  24. ^ "Block fees will improve legal aid for clients and lawyers." Legal Aid Ontario / Aide Juridique Ontario. Accessed July 2, 2010.
  25. ^ "Panel Standards." Legal Aid Ontario / Aide Juridique Ontario. Accessed July 2, 2010.
  26. ^ Tyler, Tracey (February 18, 2010). "Legal aid facing 'troubling' cuts: Loss of researchers especially worrying, storefront lawyers say.". Toronto Star. Retrieved June 10, 2010. 
  27. ^ "Civil coverage and clinic services." Legal Aid Ontario / Aide Juridique Ontario. Accessed July 2, 2010.
  28. ^ "LAO clinic consultation paper decisions" Legal Aid Ontario / Aide Juridique Ontario. Accessed July 6, 2010.
  29. ^ "Transforming Legal Aid Ontario." Ministry of the Attorney General / Ministère du Procureur général. Accessed July 2, 2010.
  30. ^ "Legal Aid Investment supports Ontario’s Vulnerable." Accessed July 6, 2010.

External links[edit]