Three Toronto bencher candidates want to ensure the Law Society of Ontario advocates strongly for legal aid in the province and supports access to justice, particularly for disadvantaged or marginalized communities.
Ryan Peck, executive director at HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario, Karen Andrews, a lawyer at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants - Ontario, and Shalini Konanur, executive director and lawyer at the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, are all seeking bencher seats as lawyers from inside Toronto. Each says the law society needs to champion access to justice and be a strong voice for legal aid. Legal Aid Ontario funds the clinics where they work.
“I think it's essential that there are benchers that have experience with providing legal services for low-income and equity-seeking persons,” says Peck, who has been HALCO's executive director since 2007 and has practised solely in legal clinics. Peck has served on various committees, including Legal Aid Ontario's Clinic Law Advisory Committee and the Ministry of the Attorney General's Poverty Law Advisory Committee.
He says these experiences have exposed him to the “patchwork” of legal services in Ontario. He's also seen how marginalized people are often at a greater risk for having negative interactions with the law.
“It's particularly important these days because of the lack of access to justice that is happening in Ontario. It's difficult for me to characterize it as anything less than a crisis when it comes to access to justice in the province of Ontario,” he says.
Andrews says she is “distressed and worried” about what could happen on April 11, the day the provincial government is slated to drop the next budget. Andrews, who worked in social justice before studying law and was a researcher on a provincial blueprint for publicly funded legal services in 1997, says legal aid is a crucial way lawyers fulfil their professional obligations to help people.
“I get a sense from this government that legal aid is an expense like everything else,” she says.
Andrews says she's concerned that funding for legal aid is subject to political shifts and lawyers need to advocate together to show the government how crucial legal aid is.
The law society also needs to seriously consider concerns raised by lawyers who say they are not being fairly compensated for services they provide through legal aid certificates, says Andrews. She says she is also increasingly concerned that crippling student debt could hinder new lawyers from practising in legal clinics. She says she's prepared to examine different fees for private and public lawyers.
“On this issue of [legal aid], the law society needs to work together,” Andrews says. “It transcends politics.”
Konanur says the society needs to consult with lawyers before proposing changes to law society fees. Regardless of what's decided about fees, the law society has to ensure it's a strong voice for legal aid, she says, and “promote the idea that it's critical the government support legal aid.”
Peck also says the law society should have more professional development education opportunities focused on matters clinic lawyers often see, such as social assistance, income maintenance and housing.
“It's important not only for clinic lawyers but for other lawyers to be aware of these areas of law, at the very least so they can flag issues because we know that people rarely present with one legal issue,” he says.
For example, a job loss could lead to someone experiencing a housing crisis.
“There's a cascade ripple effect in relation to many legal issues that people face,” says Peck. “It's important to scale up training in the ripple areas so lawyers are available to provide effective services.”
Law society fees should be reduced for lawyers who work in clinics, he says.
The law society needs to work with Legal Aid Ontario and legal aid service providers to show the government why funding these services is critical. Peck says he has a “deep concern” that the change in Ontario's government could result in less funding for legal aid.
Peck says that with “poverty increasing, with ongoing impact of colonialism and very real issues surrounding racism, sexism, homophobia [and] transphobia, it's just really vital that people have access to effective and expert legal services.
“It's unacceptable that low income people should have either no access, little access — or second-class access — to legal services.”