BRANTFORD – Can’t find a lawyer to take your case? Blame Legal Aid Ontario, one lawyer says.
“Sometimes we have people walk into our office and start crying when we tell them we do not take Legal Aid (cases) any more, as they’ve called every family lawyer in the city and been told the same thing,” says lawyer Lisa DeLong, of DeLong Law in Brantford.
DeLong used to take such cases, she says, but after eight years with no raises and increasing difficulties billing the government-funded system, she and her law firm no longer accept the cases that help low-income earners with a variety of legal issues.
“The pay is definitely not worth the seven years spent in post-secondary school and the student loan of over $100,000.”
That’s leaving people in Brantford and across Southwestern Ontario in stressful and sometimes dangerous situations, says DeLong.
“It’s most disturbing when there has been domestic violence and the victim needs a court order so the other parent doesn’t take the children or when Children’s Aid has apprehended a child and the parent wants to get the child back.”
Several local women who contacted The Brantford Expositor said it’s almost impossible to hire a lawyer or even get assistance to fill out complex family law forms.
“I went to the courthouse to get help from duty counsel and the lawyer said ‘Unless your court date is today, we won’t speak to you. Call the number on the sign,’” one frustrated woman said. “But when I called the number, it said: ‘You will not receive a call back unless you have court this week.’”
The woman said a family court information clinic also has been suspended. “I had to do everything on my own, hoping I did it right.”
Another woman trying to get legal custody of children in her care for years said she called every lawyer in Brantford and Simcoe. “They say ‘We are taking clients’ or ‘We don’t take Legal Aid’ or ‘We don’t take family cases.’ We’ve been trying for three years’”
A third woman, who is trying to leave a domestic abuse situation, said she was given a list of lawyers from the Nova Vita shelter and, after calling through the list, was told the offices were already at their maximum for Legal Aid clients.
“Now I sit, with absolutely no way out of this marriage situation because of the lack of help for Legal Aid.”
Family law and criminal law is emotional and mentally stressful for lawyers. DeLong says she knows of six Brantford family lawyers who have recently stopped taking those cases because of the toll they can take.
Dale Henderson, a busy defense lawyer in Brantford, says it’s similar in criminal law.
“It’s not a profitable business and can be emotionally draining. In the last two weeks, I’ve had four clients or former clients die, one of them in Maplehurst (Correctional Centre) so it can be very taxing on your emotions,” he said in a recent interview.
“I don’t know why anyone would get into it.”
While a prosecuting lawyer hired by the Crown starts at a salary well north of $100,000 and gets raises that eventually take them over $200,000, a private practice defence lawyer taking on Legal Aid cases may struggle to make $60,000. Out of that, they have to pay annual Law Society memberships and legal insurance, along with the possibility of setting up an office, covering their own pension and health insurance along with paying for advertising, a receptionist, a bookkeeper and equipment.
The field of available lawyers was greatly reduced over the last year as Ontario hired dozens more defence lawyers to become assistant Crown attorneys to help deal with the court backlog caused by COVID-19.
“You have to have defence lawyers to make the system work,” says Toronto-based defence lawyer Ian McCuaig, who often takes cases in Brantford.
“There’s a general shortage of lawyers in the more outlying areas right across Ontario and, as these guys who have been around forever up and leave, we need even more.”
McCuaig agreed that Legal Aid has become “administratively more and more onerous” to deal with.
“The simple solution is money. If there was more of it you would entice more lawyers to places like Brantford and Woodstock,” he said. “There’s plenty of work but the problem is conflict of interests in small communities and Legal Aid payments.”
DeLong says it’s not unusual for Legal Aid to dispute whatever time a lawyer bills them for, claiming it was too high, and it can take up to eight hours of work to bill Legal Aid for five hours.
In criminal law, Henderson – who insists he’s been trying to retire for more than a year – says the block fee system, where a lawyer gets the bulk of pay after a guilty plea or charge withdrawal, has made everything worse as petty criminals keep getting repeatedly released and rack up multiple charges.
“If I have to review 12 Crown briefs instead of one, but get paid the same, logically I’ve lost money.”
Henderson and his associate, Eric Angevine, carry hundreds of active files each year.
McCuaig, who wants to focus on trials and more serious charges, says more lawyers are needed to work the Legal Aid system. “I have lots of clients I wish I could refer to others, but I’ve got no where to send them.”
Legal Aid Ontario spokesperson Feroneh Neil didn’t dispute it’s been years since its lawyers saw a pay rise, but noted changes to the rate can be made only through ministerial approval. Serious offences and trials are paid by the hour and certain circumstances can allow special payments above the set rate.
“People who qualify for a Legal Aid certificate can use the ‘Find a Lawyer’ tool on our website to find a lawyer who can take their case,” said Neil. “Clients who experience difficulties finding a lawyer can contact the district Legal Aid office or local duty counsel to get a list of lawyers who practise in the local and surrounding areas.”
One of the women who spoke to The Expositor said that system just doesn’t work.
“I have reached out to every lawyer listed on the Legal Aid site and ‘Find a Lawyer’ in Brantford, Cambridge, Kitchener, Guelph, Dundas, Hamilton, Burlington, Stoney Creek, Ohsweken and Woodstock,” she said. “I have also reached out to women’s shelters for legal advocates, to no avail.”