Legal Aid is in crisis. It is in crisis in multiple jurisdictions and iterations. Legal aid is the perhaps one of the most essential protectors of rights in the courts outside of the work of actual lawyers. Despite this, Legal aid cannot get adequate funding to do the work it does. This inadequate funding came to a head this week when Andrew Cameron QC successfully argued for the dismissal of a £4.5 Million fraud case on the grounds that his clients could not get a fair trial due to lack of legal aid funding. That decision has now been over turned by an appellate court stating that the courts are no place for a industrial dispute between the government and the professions. The courts themselves seem divided on the nature of the crisis. Is it an industrial dispute or something more fundamental?
My belief is that the phrasing of the problem as an industrial dispute is a dishonest characterization of a problem which has plagued the British justice system for the past 20 years. The UK has undertaken many reforms in attempts to get ahead of the access to justice problem. Some jurisdictions have even tried to figure the problem out on their own. However, these attempts have effectively collapsed under the weight of a justice system that increasingly must deal with the criminalization of more facets of daily life, and must do so in the context of shrinking public funding. Austerity and Criminality are not separate phenomena, they are intimately linked. Those most damaged by austerity policies are often those most likely to find themselves in front of the courts. The same is true here in Ontario. We need to watch this fight unfold. Its outcome will likely show us the contours of Ontario’s own access to justice problems.