CLA THE VOICE OF THE CRIMINAL DEFENCE BAR

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Legal Aid Ontario’s mental health strategy misses the mark

Recently the Toronto Star posted an article on a new mental health strategy announced by Legal Aid Ontario. This is our Association’s response:

Letter to the Editor – Re: Legal Aid Ontario releases pioneering mental health strategy: Goar

Legal Aid’s sudden commitment to improving the level and quality of legal services it provides to the mentally ill is encouraging, but sadly long overdue, and, ultimately, flawed.

The Criminal Lawyers’ Association membership, which is made up of over 1000 private defence counsel, many of whom take Legal Aid files, sees this announcement as window dressing to hide the grossly underfunded resources that are required to actually address the legal problems of the mentally ill on the ground.

As anyone who has spent years representing the mentally ill before courts and tribunals will tell you, the real solution to the actual legal needs of the mentally ill is patience and commitment, and that requires time and money.

The one thing conspicuously absent from this announcement is the additional money for it, from the provincial government. Without new money, existing funds for indigent defence must be diverted and this necessarily means reducing funding to other vulnerable groups who depend on Legal Aid’s assistance. These groups include refugees, child protection matters, and persons asserting their innocence–groups who are brought into the legal system largely in response to the same government, one might add, that funds both their prosecution and their defence.

Indeed, we question whether this initiative is the wisest use of Legal Aid monies. In the age of specialization, the proclaimed expanded use of existing untrained staff lawyers at Legal Aid, for example, in an attempt to bring them up to speed to fill a hole does not make sense. Counsel of choice, with many more years of experience actually fighting for the rights of the mentally ill, are already out there, at the hospitals and at hearings and trials, taking these cases daily. Private counsel, taking Legal Aid matters are better, already specialized, and more cost-effective

at dealing with legal problems than this creation of a new, soon to be entrenched bureaucracy. Legal Aid’s own studies have borne this out in the past.

One would have wished for a more balanced reporting of this issue.

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  • clablog

    Thanks for the early feedback! The consultation paper is designed to generate conversation around exactly the issues you raise: how best to partner with the private bar to better allocate resources, improve and expand services, and address unmet client needs. It takes as “first principles” the need to develop the strategy through a rights-based approach, and that the most important service is indeed a good lawyer. Ideas in the paper speak directly to these goals, including expanded eligibility for clients with mental illness and more flexible private bar retainers to cover a wider range of legal needs. I’d be delighted to talk about your ideas and suggestions. Perhaps we can convene a series of focus groups with the CLA beginning in January. These consults would contribute directly to the development of an “action plan” outlining specific initiatives and commitments, for release sometime next year.

    Thanks!

    Ryan

    Policy Counsel, Mental Health Strategy

    fritschr@lao.on.ca

    http://www.legalaid.on.ca/en/policy/mentalhealth.asp