Cuts to legal aid mean worse health for vulnerable people

By Gary BlochOpinion
Tues., July 2, 2019

I’m not a lawyer — I’m a doctor. But I was near stunned by the announcement of deep cuts to Ontario’s legal aid system.
I have worked closely with legal aid clinics and legal aid-funded practitioners for more than a decade, to improve the health of my patients and of our society.
Many of my patients have legal needs that require expert intervention to maintain their social and medical stability. This is not news. Almost every doctor is asked to help their patients navigate the legal system, for issues ranging from family discord to accessing disability supports.
In 2013, legal and health practitioners came together to discuss how to better collaborate to improve our low-income clients’ health and access to justice. From these meetings emerged the Health Justice Program, which embeds a legal aid-funded lawyer right in our health team.
This lawyer is focused on the legal needs of our most vulnerable patients, and demand for her services is high and growing. Similar initiatives are emerging across Ontario.
I have also collaborated with legal aid clinics. Neighbourhood legal clinics, which are deeply knowledgeable about the threats to health faced by my patients and community, are now facing crippling funding cuts.
And specialty legal clinics, including those focused on poverty, disability, HIV and Indigenous peoples, are also facing devastating cuts.
As a doctor, I spend my time immersed in patients’ stories, and I hear how laws and government regulations directly impact people’s lives. For example, challenges people with disabilities face in ensuring social services are accessible, or fears people with HIV have that they could face prosecution if they reveal their status to partners.
Legal aid clinics are particularly well positioned to see the patterns of impact on their clients. They hold the expert knowledge to advocate for change and are essential to ensuring those who are most vulnerable are treated fairly under the law.
Access to justice has been recognized in the scientific literature as a social determinant of health. When people are denied the ability to advocate for their legal rights, they are left with high levels of stress, in worse poverty, and in increasingly vulnerable situations. This leaves them in poorer health and puts a higher demand on the health system.
As with most cuts to essential social services, policies that look like savings from one angle often cost us more, in increased health costs and lost productivity. My workload as a doctor increases. My patients’ health worsens.
And our social fabric frays, as it has with each of this government’s cuts to essential social services and supports. Some have called this death by a thousand cuts. I call this a thousand deaths by a thousand cuts.
This so-called drive to austerity results in real and tangible impacts on our health — we get sicker faster, and we die sooner.
This is not hyperbole. This is the reality of ignoring the evidence that tells us that access to basic social supports, including access to legal aid, is a true and essential determinant of our health.

Gary Bloch is a family physician in Toronto

Hoping the new attorney general does the right thing

By Avvy GoOpinion
Tues., July 2, 2019

I hope Attorney General Doug Downey enjoyed the Canada Day long Weekend. I didn’t. I was too distraught to learn that my colleagues at the three workers’ rights legal clinics have to lay off staff, take a voluntary pay cut, stop taking new clients, or do all three just to keep their clinics afloat.
I was too devastated to see specialty clinics advocating for tenants’ rights, social assistance reform and for a clean environment get 25 per cent to 45 per cent cuts to their funding for no reasons other than being good at what they do.
I too am worried that come October, our clinic will not have enough money to pay rent and have to let staff go. I am not the only one who is concerned. Since hearing about our financial woes, a homeless client who has been coming to our clinic for help for two decades has been calling us everyday on a pay phone, with money she does not have, just to check if we are still opened.
Worse, more cuts will be coming next year to legal aid, and the premier has ordered a review of the legal clinic system. If the current cuts are signs of things to come, the future for our system is grim.
Downey’s appointment as Attorney General gave me hope. I understand that he was bestowed with the Sam Delmar Award by the Simcoe County Law Association, an honour named after a lawyer well known for his kindness and generosity. The award is to acknowledge lawyers with outstanding personal achievement reflecting a significant personal struggle, a courageous undertaking on a client’s behalf, or outstanding community service.
Surely someone with his community involvement would appreciate the important role legal clinics play in ensuring those who live in the margin of our society have a fighting chance of accessing justice.
My hope was heightened when I heard that following the throne speech, Downey quoted former Ontario Premier Leslie Frost and talked about how he inspired Downey to devote himself to public duty and how honoured he is to be working in the Frost building.
Could it be that Downey realize it was under Premier Frost’s watch that the Ontario Human Rights Commission was created and Indigenous peoples were given the right to vote?
I also wonder if the attorney general recalled that for many years Chinese Canadians did not celebrate Canada Day because it was on this day in 1923, that Canada passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to bar all but a few Chinese from coming to Canada. For 24 years, until its repeal in 1947, fewer than 50 Chinese were allowed to enter Canada. Thanks to the 20-year long Redress movement, of which our clinic played a significant part, the former Conservative Government under Stephen Harper finally acknowledged the historical wrong and provided reparation to the community.
Perhaps Downey would remember that during the Second World War, Canada interned tens of thousands of Japanese Canadians and stripped them of their homes and businesses under the War Measures Act. It was in 1988 when Brian Mulroney was the Prime Minister — with his former law partner the Hon. Doug Lewis as his cabinet member — that Japanese Canadians received their apology and just compensation.
Cuts to legal aid mean worse health for vulnerable people.
Today we are in the midst of writing a new chapter in the history of legal aid in Ontario — a system that has served as a much-emulated model of the world, with the legal clinics having played a central role of its success. A system that is now under attack, with deliberate misinformation about its lack of efficiency as the justification for its obliteration.
While I acknowledge Minister Downey is not the one who started us on this path of destruction, I do need to ask him this: Would you rather go down in history as the politician who put the nail in the coffin of the legal clinic system, or the visionary leader who not only revived, but revitalized, the system with much needed new funding?
The decision is Downey’s, and when he is ready to make it, I hope he will bring with him the lessons we learn from history, and the spirit of Sam Delmar.

Avvy Go, Clinic Director, Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic.