TORONTO - Ontario's attorney general defended controversial cuts to legal aid on Wednesday after some of the province's top judges said the move, which the government said was aimed at saving taxpayers money, would end up costing more down the road.
Doug Downey said he was consulting with Legal Aid Ontario and its stakeholders in an effort to modernize the system, but added that the legal community must be aware of who pays the bills for the agency.
"What lawyers and other special interest groups need to understand is that the legal aid system is funded by hard-working taxpayers," he said in a statement. "Our government is taking on the vitally important job of ensuring Ontario's legal aid system is sustainable so that clients and taxpayers get the results they should expect."
Downey's comments came one day after some judges publicly criticized the cuts to legal aid services, saying they will not produce the desired cost-savings sought by Premier Doug Ford's government.
Chief Justice of Ontario George Strathy said in remarks delivered Tuesday at an annual opening of the courts ceremony that cuts to Legal Aid Ontario will force many people to self-represent.
"What we judges can say is that reducing legal representation for the most vulnerable members of society does not save money," he said. "It increases trial times, places greater demands on public services, and ultimately delays and increases the cost of legal proceedings for everyone."
Ontario is reducing funding to Legal Aid Ontario by 30 per cent, meaning the publicly funded agency will receive $133 million less in this fiscal year. The move is part of an overall government effort to bring Ontario's $11.7-billion deficit under control.
The cuts have sparked anger in the legal community, with some calling on the Ford government to reverse course.
NDP deputy leader Sara Singh said Downey should not diminish the concerns of lawyers and judges by suggesting they are a "special interest group". The government should be listening to the experts — Ontario's judiciary — and reverse the cuts, she said.
"(Judges) speaking out should be something the attorney general and this government is listening to rather than admonishing them or dismissing their concerns," she said.
Singh said the cuts will hurt vulnerable people. A single person must earn less than $17,731 a year to qualify for legal aid in Ontario.
"These cuts are really cruel and very inefficient," she said. "They're going to create further delays and cost us more in the long run."
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser urged the attorney general to take the judges' concerns seriously.
"This government has been in a rush to tear things down and doesn't think about the consequences," he said. "It's right for the judiciary to speak up ... I think the minister's comments are off-base and unnecessarily inflammatory. "
Also on Tuesday, Strathy said the most vulnerable in society come before the province's courts and they are "ill-equipped" to navigate the legal process without legal help.
"I can tell you from personal experience, shared by every judge in this room, that the pace of a proceeding with an unrepresented litigant slows to a crawl and that every sector of the justice system bears increased costs as a result," he said.
Those delays have the impact of undermining trust in the justice system as a whole, he added.
"We can also say that public confidence in the administration of justice is enhanced when the most vulnerable in our society are given a voice, so they can truly be heard," Strathy said.
The Tory government has had a rocky relationship with the judiciary. Ford publicly questioned the authority of the court last fall after a judge ruled that the government's decision to reduce the size of Toronto city council was unconstitutional.