This story is a part of UNAIDED, a HuffPost Canada series that examines the effects of recent funding cuts to Ontario’s legal aid system and the impacts on the vulnerable people who rely on it to navigate our complicated justice system.
TORONTO — They’re taking a 20-per-cent pay cut to save each other’s jobs. But someone might get laid off anyway.
Workers at Toronto’s Industrial Accident Victims Group of Ontario (IAVGO), a legal clinic that helps workers who get injured on the job and can’t afford a lawyer, have agreed to cut back their hours and pay. The clinic will stop taking new cases and will no longer hire law students to help with cases in the summer.
“We know there’ll have to be more. That 20-per-cent cut doesn’t completely cover the budget cut,” Danny Kastner, a lawyer and vice chair of IAVGO’s board of directors, told HuffPost Canada.
“We just haven’t decided what will be the next step.”
IAVGO got the news June 12 that its budget for this fiscal year, which started in March, would be retroactively cut by 22 per cent. IAVGO is losing $250,000 of its roughly $1-million budget. It’s one of the measures Legal Aid Ontario is taking to save money because Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government is slashing $164 million from their funding over the next three years.
“When I found out, I can’t explain to you in words [how I felt,]” IAVGO paralegal Belia Berrocal told HuffPost of the cuts to her clinic. “It’s like somebody hit me hard.”
She said she will have to stop sending money to her elderly mother back home in Peru, and will take her daughter out of summer camp and extracurricular activities to save money.
IAVGO Lawyers and paralegals already make much less than their private sector colleagues, Berrocal said, but they do it because they know their work helps vulnerable people.
“It’s more than work for me, it’s what I believe. It’s giving back to the community all that I got from my country studying law and political science.”
A spokesman for the ministry of the attorney general said the government is helping Legal Aid Ontario save money through “carefully considered measures” that will ensure free legal services are available for everyone who needs them.
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“It is our government’s expectation that legal aid clinics will prioritize frontline services to ensure they remain strong and protect direct services for eligible Ontarians who need legal aid,” ministry spokesman Brian Gray told HuffPost by email.
But staff at IAVGO say the budget cuts are threatening exactly what the government is claiming to protect — services for clients who have nowhere else to turn.
The clinic is a “last resort” for low-income workers, many of whom are racialized like she is, Berrocal said.
She and Kastner both said it’s impossible for IAVGO to absorb such a significant budget cut without cutting services.
“I know how vulnerable the clients are. It made no sense to me that we would be taking funds away from those most desperately in need of it,” Kastner said.
“When you cut legal help for people that have been hurt and injured at work, what you are doing is forcing those same people to rely on welfare, on Ontario Disability [Support Program], on increased health-care needs because their conditions tend to get worse when they don’t have workplace insurance funds upfront.”
IAVGO is one of three specialty legal clinics in Ontario that focus on injured workers. One of the others, Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic, is laying off 40 per cent of its staff, as HuffPost first reported Tuesday.
Legal Aid Ontario says that these clinics can absorb greater funding cuts than the others by merging their operations, but the clinics say that their operating costs are already low and relocation costs will end up costing more.
A spokesman for Legal Aid Ontario told HuffPost that IAVGO had a cash surplus last year.
“The workers clinics had a better opportunity to collaborate compared to other specialty clinics … They could explore both co-location or amalgamation to save leasing and management expenses,” spokesman Graeme Burk said in an email.
“An assessment of time spent by staff, as reported by the clinic, indicates IAVGO spends up to 25% of their time on administration. Many other clinics operate in the range of 10% to 15% of staff time spent on administration. Pivoting 10% of staff time to case work would make a significant impact to mitigate a reduction in client service,” he said.
Kastner said the clinic is open to “any measure” that will save money without impacting clients. But Legal Aid Ontario hasn’t given them any direction on how amalgamation would work or how much money it would save, Kastner said.
It would make more sense to make a plan for amalgamation first and change the clinics’ budgets second, he said.
“That proposal is not consistent with a cut that is for this year and is retroactive.”
All of the changes Legal Aid Ontario has made so far — cutting clinic budgets, services for refugees, certificates for criminal lawyers representing clients at bail hearings, and its own administration costs — are expected to save about $70 to $75 million this year, Legal Aid Ontario staff has told HuffPost. The agency will have to find another $90 million in savings over the next few years.
One of the eliminated services helped an IAVGO employee settle in Canada.
Sharifullah Mahboob, an IAVGO support worker who does reception and books appointments, got a lawyer through legal aid to help with his refugee claim when he arrived from Afghanistan in 2013.
“I needed that at that time. So I like to help needy people who cannot afford lawyers or legal advice,” he told HuffPost.
He said the budget cuts are “hard to believe.”
Like all his colleagues, Mahboob is taking a 20-per-cent pay cut. His salary supports his five children and his wife, who arrived in Canada in 2017 and does not speak English.
Asked how they’ll pay the bills on a smaller salary, Mahboob went quiet for a moment.
“I don’t know.”
This story has been updated with comment from the Ministry of the Attorney General.
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