Legal clinic garners support during day of action

Ken Kellar

It’s not often you can have a burger and learn about legal aid services at the same event.

The Northwest Community Legal Clinic (NCLC) in Fort Frances held a barbecue outside their Scott Street location on Tuesday as part of a province-wide day of action protesting the cuts made to Legal Aid Ontario by the Ontario government.

Visitors to the tent were able to learn more about the services offered by NCLC, as well as sign a petition in support of reversing the cuts. Free hotdogs and hamburgers were also available.

NCLC executive director Trudy McCormick was one of the staff on hand at the event, and noted that the cuts to legal aid services will have a far reaching impact.

“We’re trying to send a message to the province that it’s not just folks in Toronto who’ve been impacted by this and care about it, it’s people in communities all across the province,” McCormick explained.

“It is community members, it is folks from all walks of life in all communities all over the province who care about legal aid services.”

As part of the province’s April budget, Legal Aid Ontario saw the government pull $133-million in funding. The government also said the organization was no longer allowed to use provincial funds for any refugee or immigration cases.

Heather Johnson, a longtime NCLC board member and current treasurer, says that the desire to save money shouldn’t come at the expense of people who rely on services provided by the clinic.

“There’s probably cost savings, and we’re looking at those as well,” Johnson said.

“But to unilaterally just make those cuts without seeing the impact down the road, I think you’re taken aback and you’re trying to make up for everything.”

McCormick said that the effects of the cuts are already being felt here in town.

“One of the first effects we’re seeing is we’re not able to help people with really complicated workers compensation cases anymore,” she explained.

“Because the legal clinics that are specialty clinics that do that work have been cut severely in Toronto and we used to be able to do that kind of work with their help, so we can’t take those cases anymore.”

“We also had an injured workers lawyer position that was shared amongst 11 Northern community legal clinics, again trying to leverage knowledge and expertise so that everyone in every community could get help, that position was also cut by legal aid Ontario in these cuts,” she continued.

McCormick said that even if an individual met the financial requirements for assistance from NCLC, thanks to the reduction in funding, the clinic wouldn’t be able to assist.

“We’re going to have to suggest they try to get a private lawyer or try to get help from the office of the worker advisor,” she said.

“The closest one is in Thunder Bay and they have a very long waiting list.”

The loss of funding also extends to other aspects of the clinic, where Johnson noted that there’s less money to hire new staff.

“If somebody leaves and we can’t find that money in our budget then we can’t hire somebody to replace them,” she said.

“So we’re going to have less lawyers, less court officials, less people in the offices to do the interviews and the contacts, and that cuts down on the number of people we can get through our doors that need our help.”

Both McCormick and Johnson said that the clinic does good work for people who can’t otherwise afford legal aid, or who might not understand the systems that they might be asked to navigate.

“It’s kind of a misunderstanding how much work and effort and how much people really do accomplish here through the legal clinic,” Johnson explained.

“It’s just been amazing what we can do for people who are disadvantaged, to be able to get the legal advice that they need and the help through the systems, the help with Landlord-Tenant, the help working their way through the court system for any type of legal aid.”

Rallies across the province yesterday were aiming for a complete reversal of the cuts, and McCormick and Johnson both said they hoped the protests would make the premier understand what impact the reduction in funding means to people in the Northwest portion of the province.

“I just think that there’s a lot of things that haven’t been looked at in this whole downsizing that they’re doing, and that they really need to come and talk to people at the grassroots level to see who we deal with,” Johnson said.

“There’s so many people that they’re just not being counted in our catchment area because of where they live or what their postal code is, so what they’re basing their cuts on is not a true reflection of who we actually serve.”

“What I would want them to know most is that when they make a cut of that magnitude that stops folks in community clinics and legal aid staff from helping those that are most vulnerable, those people have nowhere else to go,” McCormick said.

“So if the clinics aren’t there, if legal aid duty council aren’t there, some of the most vulnerable members of our society are left without any safety net, without any help.”