Waterloo Region Record

Family law legal aid cuts affect more than the poor

End of free advice for anyone facing a marital breakdown leads to self-representa­tion


Since the Ford government cut $133 million from Legal Aid Ontario’s annual budget, there has been a lot of discussion about how the cuts affect the poor. But that’s only part of the story. The cuts are also a sucker punch to the middle class.

Before the cuts, anyone going through a separation or divorce could receive free legal assistance (usually up to 30 minutes) for a variety of common legal problems, regardless of their income. This service was provided at legal informatio­n centres across the province and was paid for by legal aid.

The advice was crucial in helping people in all stages of the divorce or separation process, whether they were trying to figure out where to start, preparing for an important court hearing or facing an emergency, like domestic violence.

In response to the funding cuts, Legal Aid Ontario chose to significan­tly limit who could receive these free legal services, cutting them almost totally for anyone above the income cut-offs. A family of four now has to earn under $45,440 to qualify for free legal assistance. A person living alone must make less than $22,720.

As a result, many middle-class Ontarians who used to qualify for free legal help are now faced with the intimidati­ng challenge of appearing in court without advice or paying hefty private legal fees.

Half an hour of advice may not sound like a lot, but this assistance filled an important gap in the system. For one, there was no limit on how many times any one person could sign up for the advice. Many self-represente­d persons signed up every time they came to court. Some signed up more than once per day.

The reality is that many middle-class Canadians simply cannot afford to hire a lawyer. They are already overwhelme­d with the cost of living, debt and child care — all of which only become more difficult to pay for when there are two households to support instead of one.

Basic free advice helped prepare many people for facing the intimidati­ng and complicate­d legal process that often follows a relationsh­ip breakdown. When we consider that on average, self-represente­d people fare worse than those with lawyers, any service that fills the gap and levels the playing field should be fiercely protected.

At the courthouse, lawyers and judges are already feeling the impact of this missing advice, as self-represente­d litigants come to court with even less preparatio­n than before.

Because this free advice is no longer provided, many people make serious mistakes through the separation process. Some of these mistakes can have lasting financial implicatio­ns or can radically change people’s future relationsh­ips with their children.

Too many people appear in court without understand­ing how badly they need legal advice. Others may rely on their cultural expectatio­ns about how property or child custody are divided, and may be unpleasant­ly surprised at how the family law system approaches these issues.

Some individual­s may not appreciate the benefits of formal conflict resolution in achieving an efficient end to their family law process. The help that legal aid used to provide before the cuts went a long way toward addressing these challenges.

When people come to court unprepared, it also places an additional burden on court resources. Even people who have their own lawyers suffer the consequenc­es when court time is wasted because selfrepres­ented individual­s don’t have proper, basic advice.

Wasted court time means that represente­d litigants have to wait longer to resolve a dispute, increasing their legal bill. Wasted court time is also a waste of public funds. Courtrooms are very expensive to operate — we pay for the judge, the court reporter, the clerk, security, etc. — and hearings can be delayed if the parties do not understand their rights and the court process.

The bottom line: Premier Doug Ford’s legal aid cuts hurt everyone, regardless of income. To view it otherwise is simply wrong.

Alexandra Kirschbaum has practised exclusivel­y in family law since 2013 and is a member of the Legal Aid Family Law and Child Protection panels, as well as being an Office of the Children’s Lawyer panel member.

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