You Can’t Always Get What You Need: The Legal Aid Boycott in Ontario

Posted by Guest Blogger Alison

Since June 2009, criminal lawyers in Ontario have been boycotting legal aid cases, meaning that many accused criminals who likely had a hard time finding a good lawyer to represent them are now having an impossible time. What’s going on? Well, according to the members of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, the group that has called for the boycott, the reason is that legal aid isn’t paying them enough to try large, complicated trials such as murder and guns-and-gangs cases. They have since refused to take on those complex cases.

What does this mean for access to justice?   Can we fairly try someone for a serious crime without access to a criminal lawyer? And if not, how long can we leave them sitting in prison waiting for a fair trial? These questions are undoubtedly on the mind of Ontario Attorney General Chris Bentley, who introduced a plan in September that attempted to get these lawyers back to work on their pressing criminal legal aid matters by boosting funding to the agency by $150 million over four years.
But the Criminal Lawyers’ Association has rejected Bentley’s funding plan, saying it is too broad and doesn’t offer real wage increases. So what’s next? Lawyers who take on Legal Aid cases are asking for a greater system of funding before they start taking on these cases again. Meanwhile, critics say the boycott is undermining the justice system. Members of the public, who are always quick to accuse lawyers of greed and corruption, can be heard telling Ontario lawyers off throughout message boards and forums across the country. Many argue that lawyers should be forced to take on legal aid cases as part of their practice, reduce their rates and take responsibility for the situation themselves.
One thing is clear, if the boycott carries on we face the risk of a series of wrongful convictions. If accused murderers can’t find an experienced lawyer to run their trial at the current legal aid rate, how are they expected to defend themselves in court? Despite these very real risks, the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted has joined the boycott and supports the lawyers’ attempts to seek an increase to the legal aid fees. Their argument is that a properly funded system for defence counsel is an insurance policy against the train wrecks known as wrongful convictions.
So what do you think is the solution here? Is this just an example of greedy lawyers going on “strike” and they should be forced to take on pro bono work? Or is there a way to meet the needs of both the lawyers and the legal aid system? In order to find a long term solution, an examination of the deeper issues at play here is necessary and may include such investigations as the way in which the Ontario Attorney General chooses to prosecute its case load, the management and administration of legal aid and the consequence and/or avoidance of excessive debt which undoubtedly impacts in areas of life beyond just the funding of legal aid.

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