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Chronic underfunding

Dear editor:

I have read Mr. Watt’s letter to the editor (Sept. 19), in which he chastised those members of the Rainy River District Law Association who do not accept legal aid cases for supporting the withdrawal of legal aid/duty counsel services.

He views their support as hypocritical.

By analogy, Mr. Watt suggests only people without homes can support the homeless, only persons who are starving can support food banks, and only those individuals who have suffered from cancer can support the Cancer Society.

Whether or not a lawyer takes on legal aid cases is irrelevant to the issue. The Rainy River District Law Association (with the exception of one lawyer) supported the withdrawal of legal aid and duty counsel services for the month of August in a concerted effort by lawyers across the province to secure an increase in legal aid funding.

Duty counsel and legal aid services were resumed as of Sept. 1 and at this time, there is no further withdrawal contemplated by the Rainy River District Law Association.

Lawyers throughout Ontario refuse to accept legal aid because the tariff is so low it does not come close to covering overhead costs.

Legal aid assistance is vital to the administration of justice to ensure access to justice. The issue is of such importance that the Law Society of Upper Canada unanimously passed two resolutions on Sept. 26 supporting an immediate increase in the legal aid tariff to $125 per hour, and urging the Attorney General to implement the increase immediately and to “engender broad and meaningful support for these resolutions amongst the profession.”

The Law Society endorses and acknowledges the need for the entire legal profession (not just those lawyers accepting legal aid) to support ongoing efforts to ensure access to justice and adequate funding for legal aid.

While the public may view the $125 per hour suggested rate to be excessive, the fact is that lawyers in private practice pay office overhead costs including staff wages, benefits, equipment purchases including computers, software, photocopying machines, and fax machines, rent or mortgages, professional insurance fees, property insurance, property taxes, and incidental costs associated with operating a business.

The operating costs often exceed 60 percent of the hourly rate charged by lawyers. The incidental costs of managing a complicated file can be as high as 75 percent.

Legal aid pays lawyers 10 cents a page for photocopying while the Attorney General for Ontario charges $2 per page to have documents at the courthouse photocopied.

Social workers hired by the Attorney General recently received a 150 percent increase in their hourly rate, therefore the social workers actually earn more than the tier one legal aid lawyers.

The judiciary received a 30 percent increase in the 1992 base salaries. Crown Attorneys received a 30 percent increase in their salaries to address the fact that their incomes had not increased since 1991.

The provincial government provided funding to increase the number of staff Crown Attorneys by 52 percent since 1997. There has been a 100 percent increase in funding for Children’s Aid Societies over the past five years.

I have not included the significant increases in court filing fees over the past five years.

Legal aid lawyers did not receive an increase in the hourly tariff rate since 1985 and when the tariff rate increase was announced with such fanfare in July, 2002, it was five percent!

More people are before the courts on criminal charges, child protection matters, family law matters, and provincial offences matters than ever before. The availability of qualified, competent legal aid lawyers is being eroded by the chronic underfunding.

Access to justice is being denied to people who often need justice the most.

Mr. Watt was the former area director for legal aid. I expect he understands and appreciates the results of the chronic underfunding of legal aid.

He owes it to the profession, and to the public, to assist in addressing the issues proactively, with the degree of professionalism and collegiality expected of someone with his experience and integrity.

Yours truly,

Barbara Morgan

B.Sc.N., L.L.B.

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