How Doug Ford’s legal-aid cuts will play out in his own riding

In the wake of funding cuts by the Progressive Conservatives, the Rexdale Community Legal Clinic, in Etobicoke North, is struggling to balance the new economic constraints and the needs of its clients
By Abby Plener - Published on June 20, 2019
Rexdale Community Centre
The Rexdale Community Legal Clinic is located in the riding of Etobicoke North, which is represented at Queen’s Park by Doug Ford. (facebook.com/Rexdale Community Legal Clinic)

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Last week, Legal Aid Ontario announced that it would be cutting $14.5 million in funding for legal clinics across the province, a response to seeing its own budget slashed 30 per cent by the Progressive Conservative government. Toronto’s 14 clinics will be hit with a $2.1 million reduction in total. One of them, the Rexdale Community Legal Clinic, is in Premier Doug Ford’s riding of Etobicoke North. So how will these cuts play out there — and what will they mean for the rest of the province?

The Rexdale clinic serves thousands of clients every year, handling tenants’-rights and eviction cases, facilitating ODSP and immigration claims, and providing affidavit services for OSAP and child-care applications. In 2018 and 2019, it dealt with, on average, 10 new clients per day. Previously, it received funding for 11 full-time caseworkers: as a result of the 10 per cent budget cut, three and a half positions will be eliminated by March 2020. The clinic also lost funding for a special project, the Health Justice Program, which saw a staff lawyer conduct client intake at local community-health centres.

“It’s pretty devastating,” says Yodit Edemariam, the clinic’s acting director of legal services.

“We’re talking about constituents who won’t be served anymore, and constituents are voters. When people can’t access social assistance, [or] they can’t fight an eviction, they’re going to remember the government who made it harder for them to fight.”

A public-school teacher who spent much of his career in Rexdale, Nigel Barriffe has encountered many families in desperate legal situations. “When families are under pressure from an unfair landlord,” he says, “that puts an extreme amount of stress on a child.” Barriffe, who previously served on the Rexdale clinic’s board of directors and is now the president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, says that he regularly hears complaints from residents about housing issues and unfair labour practices. “The clinic has been able to protect families who don’t have the resources to protect themselves,” he says, calling the Tory cuts “an attack on the poor.”

The premier’s spokesperson, Ivana Yelich, told TVO.org via email that Ford’s constituency office has been in touch with the Rexdale clinic and that “they will continue working together to support the people who rely on this important service,” adding, “For too long, funding for legal aid has gone up, while the taxpayer and legal aid clients are not receiving the results they should expect.”

When asked to provide a specific example of clients failing to get results, Yelich responded that the previous Liberal government “did nothing to review the work legal aid does to ensure it is helping people who need it and the Auditor General has documented many reforms that are needed at Legal Aid Ontario.” (The attorney general has also launched a “modernization” review of all legal-aid services, and further cuts are expected in 2020 and 2021.)

Yelich’s statement echoes remarks made by Attorney General Caroline Mulroney during question period this spring, in which she emphasized the need for “renewed accountability at legal aid.” (Update: in a cabinet shuffle on Thursday, Mulroney was reassigned to the Ministry of Transportation.)

But, Edemariam says, the Rexdale clinic has nothing to hide: it submits annual funding applications and undergoes regular audits. Its annual reports to LAO include feedback surveys from clients; Edemariam says that it generally receives positive reviews and that it does consider clients’ suggestions. “We are not afraid of being accountable,” she says. “We know where our money goes, and we know how carefully we spend it.”

In recent years, the clinic has also pursued other cost-saving strategies: for example, when possible, it participates in hearings via telephone or video. “Clients have hearings here so they don’t have to travel all the way downtown, which is quite an effort for somebody who’s disabled,” she says. “It also means staff aren’t going all the way downtown and coming back. So, we have a really good use of resources there.”

Julie Matthews, the executive director of Community Legal Education Ontario, says the Rexdale clinic is known for its leadership in forging partnerships with other social services and for finding creative ways to meet clients’ needs. It started visiting welfare offices to review clients’ applications before they were submitted to ensure that they were filed properly, she notes, which saved time and money on future appeals and front-line services. The clinic, she says, “has a preventative focus that I would have thought the government would be interested in supporting.”

Toronto clinics will be absorbing a higher share of the overall cuts: their funding will be reduced on average 6 per cent, while clinics outside the city will be facing a 1 to 2 per cent decrease. According to Jayne Mallin, vice-president of client services at LAO, that’s in part because of changing demographics. More low-income residents are moving away from Toronto’s downtown core and into the 905 region, where legal clinics have been historically underfunded, she says. So, while all Toronto clinics were subject to an adjustment based on the low-income population in their catchment area, York and Peel regions were excluded from that part of the formula. “There are richer resources in Toronto,” she says. “So we felt the GTA clinics could absorb a higher percentage.”

But, as University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski has found, income levels within Toronto itself are increasingly polarized, and the number of middle-income areas is shrinking. The area covered by Etobicoke North has experienced a long-term increase in low-income census tracts over several decades: in 2015, the prevalence of low-income residents in the riding was 22.5 per cent, according to the 2016 census. That puts it above both the city-wide average (20.2 per cent) and the provincewide average (14.4 per cent).

Mallin says LAO has also been working to minimize the impact of the cuts in rural Ontario, as clients there often lack transportation options, and the clinics serve large geographic areas.

But while the GTA on the whole does have a higher density of clinics and public transportation, Etobicoke North is one of its most underserved communities. Edemariam says that many low-income clients at the Rexdale clinic have to pay for multiple bus trips a day, which can be a substantial burden. “The clients we often serve are on such low incomes that it matters if they take the bus twice a day,” she says. “If they’re running around going to different social services, that’s a hit to their daily income.”

In response to last week’s news, Toronto mayor John Tory argued that the city likely has more people in need of legal aid than other areas of the province do — and Mallin admits that clinics there would require funding increases to meet the true demand. But, given the cuts imposed by the province, she says, LAO has had to make tough decisions, and it’s tried to be as equitable as possible.

Back in April, Ford made an unscheduled call to a Global News radio show to address critics of the legal-aid cuts and promised listeners that “if anyone needs support on legal aid, feel free to call my office. I will guarantee you that you will have legal aid.”

The Rexdale clinic, Edemariam says, maintains a positive relationship with its local MPP and city councillors and that they do refer clients to their local representatives in desperate situations.  In the wake of the budget cuts, she says, “We will have no choice but to refer the clients we cannot serve anymore to city councillors and MPPs.” While she admits that politicians can be a useful resource in certain cases, she doubts whether they can provide the same services as lawyers: “[Clients] might get assistance in certain ways, but they’re not going to get detailed legal advice.”

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