A serious problem with the Ontario justice system that is overshadowed by the legal aid boycott is the enormous segment of the population that does not qualify for legal aid but can’t afford a lawyer. These are the unrepresented.
To understand the scope of the problem, one must appreciate that only those who earn approximately $8,000 a year or less qualify for legal aid. This is a shocking figure. Imagine a single mother with two children earning $16,000 who is embroiled in a bitter custody battle with a physically abusive dead-beat ex. In Ontario, she must pay her own legal bills while supporting herself and her family.
A recent article in the Globe and Mail highlights the efforts by Bay Street heavy-weight Heenan Blaikie to help the unrepresented in high risk communities in Toronto. Qualified candidates receive legal advice free of charge, the cutoff income for a family of four is $75,000 and associates can count their pro bono work as billable hours. This is generous and very commendable. Unfortunately this firm doesn’t have any family or criminal law lawyers, and this is where the need is most accute. None the less, Heenan Blaikie deserves high praise.
I doubt very much that a concerted effort to encourage pro bono work would be sufficient to alleviate the problem. Something larger needs to be done. Various members of the legal community are pushing for reforms, however a broader public awareness of the problem would definitely help to generate the political will necessary to bring about change.