Fewer low-income people get legal aid

York Region, Dec. 07, 2011

By: Ian Ha

Fewer low-income people are being granted access to legal aid in Ontario, despite millions of tax dollars being spent on the provincial program.

Provincial auditor general Jim McCarter this week released his office’s analysis of the program, which costs the province about $190 million a year.

Tighter controls are needed to ensure the money lawyers receive for legal aid work is justified, he said his office found during an investigation.

But calling for stronger controls over payments unfairly suggests part of the problem lies with lawyers over-charging the system, said criminal lawyer Ed Prutschi, who practises in Newmarket and occasionally does legal aid cases.

During the past decade, Ontario has spent more on legal aid, per capita, than any other province.

But an outdated test to determine if someone is eligible for legal aid, combined with rising lawyers’ legal aid fees, has resulted in fewer low-income people qualifying for the service, Mr. McCarter said in his annual report.

During that same period, the number of Ontario Court of Justice charges at the Newmarket courthouse and York Region’s low-income population grew, figures from the provincial Attorney General and the region show.

It basically comes down to confirming lawyers are using a reasonable amount of resources when carrying out their work and the work for which they bill is being done, Mr. McCarter said yesterday. Often, that oversight is not being done, he added. But Mr. Prutschi, of the law firm Bytensky Prutschi Shikhman, disagreed, saying legal aid lawyers already face sub-market rates, billing caps and delayed or rejected payments because a lawyer’s idea of what is required to represent his client may not be the same as Legal Aid Ontario’s. “Where I take issue is the hint of a suggestion that the problem lies in inadequate controls to reign in unscrupulous lawyers who are bilking legal aid out of money,” he said.

However, he interpreted Mr. Carter’s red flag-waving over fewer low-income residents getting access to legal aid as a positive cry for increased funding for the program. Legal Aid Ontario responded to Mr. McCarter’s report by supporting his recommendations. The issue of compensating lawyers for legal aid work has recently been a flashpoint in Ontario. A legal aid boycott of gun, gang and homicide legal aid cases lasted from June 2009 to January 2010. When the boycott was resolved, a higher tariff rate for such complex cases was created, which Mr. Prutschi said would begin the process of luring experienced senior defence counsel back to working on important legal aid-funded cases. And any attempt to squeeze that compensation through a smaller filter may damage that effort, Mr. Prutschi cautioned.

If you need representation after being charged with a criminal offence, call a Toronto Criminal Lawyer from Bytensky Prutschi Shikhman located in Toronto, Ontario. Our criminal lawyers are available 24/7 to talk to you.

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