Law professors support legal-aid boycott

Kirk Makin

From Monday’s Globe and Mail

A group of 50 law professors has added its support to a growing boycott of Ontario’s legal aid plan, warning that the “deteriorating” program has endangered the stability of the court system.

“We believe that there is a significant link between the under-funding of defence counsel and the current inefficiency of the criminal justice system,” the professors said in an open letter to Attorney-General Chris Bentley.

The boycott, launched three weeks ago by the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, includes several hundred experienced defence lawyers. They have refused to take serious legal aid cases, including homicides and prosecutions related to guns and gang laws.

Allan Manson of Queen’s University said law professors are particularly aware that an adequate legal aid system is “as essential to a proper legal system as voting is to a democracy.”

“The future for the system, if the boycott persists, is grim,” said James Stribopoulos, a professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School.

He said the province has fought past legal aid protests with delaying tactics and promises of more money at some vague point in the future. Historically, he said, the defence bar has given up the fight prematurely.

“Much will depend on how committed the defence bar is in this latest round,” Prof. Stribopoulos said. “My sense is that they are very unified and that they might just manage to stand together long enough to finally earn a meaningful increase from the government.”

University of Windsor law professor David Tanovich noted that some of the effects of eroding legal aid are not visible – such as the evaporation of mentors for young lawyers.

“This has led to criminal lawyers setting up sole practice without the proper practical and ethical supervision and training,” Prof. Tanovich said. “The consequences can be devastating, as they include wrongful convictions, long trials and overturned convictions. As the criminal bar begins to retire, we will soon have a crisis on our hands.”

Prof. Stribopoulos predicted that individuals charged with serious crimes will soon be unable to retain counsel. This will force judges to grant applications for lawyers to be appointed. Since these lawyers inevitably receive a higher rate of payment, he said the province will end up paying rates that are higher than legal aid anyway.

“Governments in this province have for far too long put the legal aid file on the backburner,” Prof. Stribopoulos said. “The government expresses serious concerns about delays in the criminal justice system but fails to make the connection between this growing problem and the state of legal aid.”

The open letter from the 50 law professors said that resources have been steadily added to every other part of the criminal justice system – police, prosecutors and judges – but there has been no significant improvement to the rates that defence counsel are paid.

The governing body of the Law Society of Upper Canada has also joined the fray, issuing a conciliatory statement late in the week that applauded Mr. Bentley for his diligent efforts on behalf of legal aid, yet also applied pressure to the province.

“We believe that access to justice is not an abstract notion, but a constant public policy challenge that requires adequate public funding,” the law society resolution said.

The professors who signed the open letter are from the University of Toronto; York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School; Queen’s University; the University of Western Ontario; the University of Windsor; and the University of Ottawa.

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