Why we need to improve legal aid services to Ontario’s Aboriginal clients

By John McCamus

Last month, I had the privilege of joining a panel discussion during the Indigenous Bar Association’s 25th annual conference student day for Aboriginal students. And on Nov. 20, I look forward to my role as keynote speaker for the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation Wide Justice Summit dinner (which we help fund).

These engagements provide me with a welcome opportunity to talk about the many opportunities now available at Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) for Indigenous law students and about our Aboriginal Justice Strategy. But they also raise a number of timely issues relevant to everyone interested in access to justice.

I think it is essential for LAO — and for the legal profession in general — to understand the importance of providing more supports to Ontario’s Aboriginal peoples. It’s important for LAO because we have a statutory mandate to promote access to justice throughout Ontario for low-income individuals. And it’s important to our justice system partners because awareness of Aboriginal-specific legal issues and rights are an important part of the equation when discussing how to provide improved legal aid services to Aboriginal clients who are within the Canadian justice system.

Why? The numbers speak for themselves. While Aboriginal people only make up two per cent of Ontario’s population, they are, sadly, overrepresented, within the criminal justice system — particularly Aboriginal youth — and are also overrepresented in dealing with Children’s Aid Society matters. Between April 1, 2012 and March 31, 2013 alone:

  • 12 per cent of the certificates we issued during this timeframe — a total of 11,175 certificates — were to people who identified as Aboriginal. This is an increase of two per cent from the 2011/2012 fiscal year.
  • 13 per cent of the certificates LAO issued for serious offences are for Aboriginal clients
  • 11 per cent of LAO’s criminal certificates issued to youth are Aboriginal clients
  •  9 per cent of any CFSA related certificates are issued to Aboriginal clients

We have accomplished a great deal in the five years. Among our many activities, we have developed panel standards for representation of Aboriginal clients in criminal matters, begun to provide staff duty counsel services in Gladue court locations and, in some districts, partnered with Aboriginal defence counsel who provide on-reserve advice clinics to Aboriginal community members.

We have increased accessibility of information on LAO services for Aboriginal people through LAO’s website and public legal education materials.

We have also provided ongoing support to the Nishnawbe-Aski Legal Services Corporation; the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres’ Community Justice Program; Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto’s Gladue caseworker program in the GTA.

These accomplishments have noticeably increased understanding and awareness among LAO staff and service providers regarding Aboriginal clients and communities.

But much remains to be done — given the increasing need for Aboriginal legal representation and the woeful lack of Gladue report services to meet this demand.

We are launching another phase of our Aboriginal Justice Strategy. Our strategic priorities over the next five years will be to:

  • update and improve LAO’s understanding of the legal needs and unique circumstances of Aboriginal populations in Ontario and how to address them
  • strengthen LAO’s internal capacity to enhance services to Aboriginal clients and communities, and ensure sustainability of improvements
  • improve and increase access to Gladue services for Aboriginal people and communities
  • develop a place-based model for delivering legal aid services that is responsive to the localized needs of Aboriginal individuals and communities and in recognition of the fact that communities in different geographic areas have unique needs.

We all, however, have a role to play. We’d like to hear more about other services provided to Aboriginal people and communities, and continue to establish on-going and localized relationships with Aboriginal communities, stakeholders, and service providers.

I’d be happy to hear from you, as would LAO policy counsel Fallon Melander, who was recently elected to the Indigenous Bar Association’s Board of Directors. If you have any thoughts to share with LAO, please provide us with your feedback in the comments below.

John McCamus has served as the Chair of Legal Aid Ontario’s Board of Directors since 2007. He is a Professor of Law at Osgoode Hall Law School of York University and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. He is also an Associated Scholar in the Toronto office of Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP.