Walter Van de Kleut at the Chatham-Kent Legal Clinic on July 30, 2019. (Photo by Allanah Wills)

Local legal clinic fearing effect of cuts

The Chatham-Kent Legal Clinic is fighting back against recent provincial funding cuts.

Funded by Legal Aid Ontario, the Chatham-Kent Legal Clinic is one of 72 clinics across the province that were impacted when the Ontario government’s 2019 budget reduced funding to Legal Aid Ontario by 35 per cent in April.

According to Walter Van de Kleut, lawyer and executive director of the CK clinic, community legal clinics are a place for low-income individuals and families to turn to when they need legal assistance in areas including wills, disability and landlord issues. Services at the clinic are free for those who qualify.

Van de Kleut said it’s “shortsighted” to make cuts to Legal Aid Ontario, a program that he said gives people access to basic support when they would otherwise have nowhere to turn to.

“This is a program that’s been going on for about 45 years and what it does, is it levels the playing field. It underpins the idea that all people should have access to justice,” said Van de Kleut. “There is no one else that does the kind of legal work that we do and for good reason, a private lawyer is in business, they need to make a living. They can’t provide their services free of charge. We can because we’re funded by the provincial government…We make it so there’s justice for all.”

Van de Kleut said they were aware that budget cuts may be coming, but were shocked by just how big the cut was and even more worried about the provincial government’s plan to increase the cut to 45 per cent by 2021.

The Chatham-Kent legal clinic has been in the area for 34 years and according to Van de Kleut, they were directly affected by a 1.5 per cent cut this year. Although he said they were hit with a rather “modest cut” compared to the 20 clinics who saw cuts of up to 45 per cent, he said the biggest damage is in the cuts that are happening across the board. That includes Legal Aid Ontario getting rid of their province-wide training program for all the clinics. Van de Kleut said the clinic will also no longer get funding for rent increases of their mandatory pay equity payments. He also fears that locally, they will lose a vital role within their clinic.

“In 2018, the legal clinic was able to leverage a modest funding allocation of $28,000, with the support of community agencies, into a full-time contract position to hire a housing stability paralegal… Since September 2018 the paralegal has assisted an average of 79 tenants per month…The funding for the housing stability paralegal is at risk unless budget cuts are reversed,” he said.

On average, Van de Kleut said the CK Legal Clinic represents 260 clients a year, provide summary advice to 740 clients and refers about 2,300 people a year to community agencies who can further assist them. He said they’ve already felt the impact of the cuts.

“We’ve served fewer people, absolutely. Because we’ve had to do things ourselves, there’s been a lot more administration,” he explained.

The Chatham-Kent Legal Clinic was one of the many clinics who took part in a ‘Day of Action’ this week as a way to raise awareness about the cuts and their impact. The clinics are also asking residents to contact Premier Doug Ford, Attorney General Doug Downey or local MPPs to encourage them to rethink the cuts. The clinics have also banned together to prepare a letter that will be sent to Ford and Downey, asking them to reverse the cuts. Van de Kleut said people are welcome to come to the Chatham-Kent clinic and sign it.

Van de Kleut said overall, the cuts to Legal Aid Ontario can hurt everybody.

“The Canadian Bar Association has found that for every dollar spent on legal aid the government saves an average of $6 elsewhere,” he said. “So it has a rippling effect. I think that’s a really important point, by cutting legal aid it’s actually going to cost society more.”