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Lawyers Say Justice not Being Served

January 20, 2010

“Complete hogwash and double-speak.”

That’s the reaction of Brockville lawyer John Johnston to a Monday press release from Legal Aid Ontario announcing increased “access points” for local services despite the anticipated closure of legal aid offices in Brockville and Perth.

Johnston said plans for a toll-free telephone number and expanded court services mask the true intentions of the provincial government to cut costs and jobs by closing local legal aid offices.

“It’s absolute double-speak to say these are going to be new and improved services for clientele,” said Johnston.

“I think they grossly misjudged the catastrophic effect on services at the front end (of the system).”

Johnston said clients in need of legal aid will lose the advantage of a face-to-face meeting with local staff to help them fill out applications and determine if they qualify for help according to their financial and legal status.

He said many legal aid clients face more than financial challenges to accessing justice, including possibly the lack of a telephone or computer to access information.

“What we’re doing is putting up more roadblocks for these folks,” he said.

“I fear for the clients. They’re already cutting back on legal aid services and now there’s a new barricade to access to justice.”

But the Ottawa area director for Legal Aid Ontario, Nathalie Champagne, said the changes are meant to accommodate clients “who are telling us they prefer the convenience of (preparing) applications, asking for assistance or checking for information from their own home.”

Champagne said in an e-mail exchange the changes are part of an effort to streamline administration and provide information more easily to clients in Leeds, Grenville and Lanark counties.

“Clients who need help will be able to get (it) through a legal aid staff person via our toll-free number, or they need to speak to someone in person they will be able to do so at the Brockville and Perth courthouse.”

Moreover, Legal Aid Ontario will provide more direct services over the phone than are currently provided at local offices. That includes summary legal advice, said Champagne.

She said a toll-free number which provides free access even from a pay phone will connect clients to staff able to provide eligibility tests, referrals to duty counsel, summary legal advice for family law matters and an application for legal aid.

In addition, the phone advice overcomes common barriers to access by providing instant translation and eliminating potential transportation problems and travel costs, said Champagne.

She said plans are still being worked out to determine how to expand duty counsel services locally.

“Stay tuned for more details,” she said.

An employee at the Brockville legal aid office referred questions from a reporter to senior management, but noted the local office has one full-time staff and two contract employees.

A district supervisor also works out of the Brockville office.

Rob Barr, another Brockville lawyer, agrees with Johnston the Brockville legal aid office is likely to be closed this spring.

Barr also feels the move will hurt clients attempting to receive legal aid.

“I’m very skeptical that a 1- 800 number or an online service will be more efficient than applying face to face,” said Barr.

“I’m very concerned that not only won’t it benefit the client, but it’s going to be an additional hardship,” he said.

People on disability or in secure treatment at the Brockville Mental Health Centre may find the new system especially challenging, said Barr.

Moreover, the problems will escalate as the case proceeds to trial, he said.

“It’s not easy to navigate through the system,” said Barr, pointing out lawyers go to school for years before beginning law practice, while legal aid clients with low income and little education will be asked to pursue their cases with minimal hands-on assistance.

“Miscarriages of justice are bound to occur,” he said.

In addition, Barr predicts more delays will follow the changes to the system as clients act as their own representatives in court based on telephone advice.

He said the potential exists for witnesses to be cross-examined by the alleged perpetrators of crimes with judges being put in the “unenviable position of remaining neutral, but dispensing legal advice.”

“It’s going to be a major stress on the system. It sends chills up my spine,” said Barr.

Article ID# 2269759

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