Legal advocates are applauding last week’s federal budget commitments with investments in legal aid to support marginalized Canadians, along with the hiring of additional Superior Court judges and staff to address courtroom backlogs.
But some defence lawyers and advocacy groups are calling on the Ontario government to increase funding for those same provincially-run legal aid programs while saying it is the provincial courts that are facing the most pressing backlog.
The federal government is increasing its contribution to criminal legal aid services by $60 million in 2023.
“In order to ensure that no one is disadvantaged before the courts and that every Canadian receives a fair hearing, more support is needed,” the budget states.
That funding does not begin to flow until next year and it remains unclear how much of those dollars will be allocated to Ontario, said Kirstin Macrae of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa (DCAO).
The legal aid plan is a provincially-run program, she said. “Therefore, to properly increase access to justice for marginalized Ontarians, additional funding from the provincial government is required.”
The DCAO has long advocated for legal aid to be properly funded, Macrae said, and $60 million earmarked specifically for criminal legal aid services is “a good start.”
“However, more needs to be done to ensure adequate access to justice for all Ontarians facing criminal charges. Members of the DCAO assist Indigenous peoples, Black and racialized Canadians, and those with mental health issues every day in our criminal courts. Without proper legal aid funding, these groups of Canadians will become more marginalized.”
The federal budget also includes $83.8 million over five years and another $17.8 million ongoing to fund 24 additional Superior Court positions.
The federal government said the investment would “address and prevent delays” and will provide “more opportunities to appoint diverse candidates who can better represent the communities they serve.”
Macrae said while the DCAO supports the federal budget funding for additional Superior Court judges, “the real backlog remains in the Ontario Court of Justice,” she said. “Additional funding from the province to that court would greatly assist in ensuring those facing charges can have access to justice in a reasonable time.”
A spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General said the province announced $72 million last fall to address the “unprecedented” backlog of criminal cases that have accumulated in the justice system during the pandemic.
That investment will support the hiring of new court employees, including Crown prosecutors, court services staff, victim support staff and other support staff, said Brian Gray.
The province also made changes to modernize the Legal Aid Services Act in 2020, and other legislation passed in 2021 is helping to fill judicial vacancies.
“Ontarians were waiting too long for their day in court while judicial vacancies sat unfilled,” Gray said. “The changes we made will also promote greater diversity at every step of the appointment process so that our courts are more reflective of the communities they serve.”