By Nye Thomas
We’ve come a long way since my last blog on financial eligibility, posted in March 2014, in which I noted how far Ontario was lagging behind other jurisdictions in recognizing that financial eligibility for legal aid services must be increased.
At the time, I pointed out that Ontario’s legal aid financial eligibility standards had not changed since 1996, more than 17 years earlier—and that as a result, the coverage gap between eligibility for legal aid and Ontario’s low-income population was continuing to grow.
Six months later, on October 31, 2014, the Government of Ontario budget made an historic announcement. It would provide LAO with an initial investment of $95.7 million to increase the financial eligibility threshold by six per cent for an initial three years. The government subsequently confirmed and expanded this commitment in its April 2015 budget announcement.
Expanding access to justice
Over the last several months, LAO has been working hard to put these generous funds to work. The highlights so far include:
- Implementation of two six per cent increases (November 1, 2014 and April 1, 2015) to LAO’s certificate, duty counsel, and clinic financial eligibility guidelines. These increases have made approximately 120,000 more low-income Ontarians eligible for legal aid certificates.
- A clinic law services expansion strategy that LAO expects will quickly invest approximately $10 million more in annual funding into community legal clinics and Student Legal Aid Services Societies.
- Expanded financial eligibility guidelines for clients experiencing domestic violence.
We’ll keep going
While the work LAO has done so far will make an important difference to thousands of low-income Ontarians, LAO plans to do much more.
To help us decide exactly what, LAO has consulted extensively on eligibility expansion initiatives and priorities over the past several months.
We have met with approximately 400 lawyers, judges, and community and client representatives, and organizations. We also received invaluable feedback from LAO’s external advisory bodies, including LAO’s eight Board advisory committees as well as LAO’s Financial Eligibility Academic Study Group—a committee of academic experts on access to justice that has been meeting since 2012.
These stakeholders provided invaluable insights that will help us make informed decisions on what else we can do with the funds entrusted to us. We’ll be putting our best efforts into acting on as many of their suggestions as possible. I can say with confidence that it won’t be long before we have more to announce, so stay tuned.
Nye Thomas is LAO’s Director General, Policy and Strategic Research. Nye has been leading LAO’s financial eligibility project.