Budget cuts by the Ontario government may bring an end to the use of legal aid support to help vulnerable people fight the global climate change emergency.

Legal Aid Ontario is slashing more than a third of the Canadian Environmental Law Association's budget as a cost-savings measure after Conservative Premier Doug Ford's government delivered the biggest budget cut in the agency's history.

The non-profit, public interest environmental law group and legal aid clinic is one of six specialty clinics within Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) facing budget cuts — along with clinics in the Toronto area that are seeing their budgets reduced by six per cent on average (barring one that will face a significant reduction) — in an effort to find agency-wide cost savings without affecting any "direct client services" for the province's low-income communities.

The Ford government triggered the cuts in its first provincial budget last April as it slashed funding to LAO by 30 per cent. The cuts added up to $133 million and took effect immediately without any advance notice, despite the fact that LAO's 2019 budget had already been finalized.

The cuts have forced Legal Aid Ontario to adjust funding levels that haven’t been changed for decades and create equality in services across the province. Over the past two months, the agency has conducted an extensive consultation process to find approximately $75 million in savings this year, and has approved a $14.5-million clinic savings plan (representing 21 per cent of its target). It has been the most detailed review of the proportion of services per low-income populations the agency has ever done, according to LAO members.

The agency also looked at the percentage of time specialty clinics spent (based on their self-reported funding application) providing services apart from direct client services. It found that 75 per cent of these clinics' work consisted of services other than one-on-one legal supports.

As a result, the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), which provides legal supports to low-income communities and clients who have been harmed by pollution and other environmental issues, as well as advocating for environmental law reforms, is facing a 37-per-cent cut over two years in the $1.5-million budget provided by LAO.

Other affected specialty clinics include the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario and Income Security Advocacy Centre. Their budgets are being reduced by 25 per cent over two years. LAO is also advising three workers clinics to save money by sharing administrative costs between them and will be speaking to them about the possibility of merging into one body.

Officials from the provincial agency outlined the multimillion-dollar cuts during a technical briefing for reporters on Tuesday.

In total, these reductions amount to approximately $2.3 million of the $14.5 million in cuts being imposed this year. These specialty clinics will also see a reduction of 15 per cent in their administration budgets.

These six clinics do "systemic work as opposed to direct client service work," Jayne Mallin, vice-president of LAO's clinic law services division, told reporters at the briefing. "Our board took this exercise very seriously."

"People don't often understand what (CELA's) work looks like and why it’s important for our low-income clients," she explained. "They support communities by looking at the environmental impact on low-income communities, and issues like contaminated wells, pipelines through poor neighbourhoods, building with bad pipes in them ... that is directly related to our low-income client and that will continue."

"What it wouldn't preserve is what we've heard about in the media: the carbon tax challenge in Saskatchewan, which, again, is important work, nice to have, but, in terms of our low-income client, does not have that same direct impact," Mallin added.

CELA lawyer Richard Lindgren (left) and Professor Stewart Elgie (right) prepare to testify before the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources on April 2, 2019. Photo by Kathleen Cooper/CELA

Low-income people are considered among the most vulnerable to the global climate emergency. For example, health officials in Central Canada warned the public in 2018 that vulnerable people who could not afford air conditioning were particularly at risk following a sweltering heat wave that left dozens of people dead in Quebec and Ontario.

In a statement sent to National Observer by CELA's executive director, Theresa McClenaghan, the association said it was disappointed by the cuts, but intended to pursue its efforts to protect the most vulnerable.

"Protecting the environment against increasing threats is one of the most pressing issues of our generation," the association said in the statement. "Unfortunately, these challenges will only increase in severity with time. For this reason, CELA will remain focused on advocating in support of environmental justice at every opportunity."

‘Without us they wouldn't have some of the key environmental legislation we would have’

Six months ago, the Doug Ford government was planning on making changes that would make it simpler for developers to overtake the province's protected greenbelt for development by creating exemptions to municipal planning law to make an "open for business" zoning process.

“The fact that did not happen was largely because of CELA,” said Amir Attaran, a lawyer with Ecojustice.

CELA has played a huge role over the years in improving Canada's and Ontario’s environmental law, Greenpeace’s Keith Stewart added in an interview.

The association’s lawyers represented the people of Walkerton, Ont., during a 2001 public inquiry into a shoddy water treatment facility that caused seven E. coli-related fatalities. The association was also instrumental in closing the Richmond landfill in Napanee, Ont., in 2012 after residents’ health was jeopardized due to water contamination.

CELA continues to advocate for low-income Ontarians who struggle with affordable energy. The association has been a leading voice in pushing for stronger toxics regulation, and helped create Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, which birthed the Environmental Commissioner’s Office.

Time and again, CELA has contributed to shaping Canada’s and Ontario’s legal and policy landscape.

"It's difficult to find someone to go to years on end about these complex issues," Stewart said. “When it comes to things like land use and toxics and environmental assessments, CELA has been invaluable in trying to make a fairer (environmental) system, not just a fairer legal system."

"We've been here working on these issues for a long, long time," McClenaghan said.

In an interview, McClenaghan told National Observer she was "dismayed" by the communications she received from LAO, which has raised many questions about which of CELA’s services LAO is unwilling to fund.

“The communication we received indicated that Legal Aid’s board, in all circumstances, didn't want to prioritize law reform work,” she said, noting that law reform work was classified as making recommendations to government when a current environmental law isn't adequate or poses a risk to public health or the environment. “This could be changes to the Safe Drinking Water Act or even fighting the need for a Safe Drinking Water Act, which we did many years ago.”

LAO has been providing CELA with its core funding for over two decades — an agreement that was reached after the agency decided not to offer certificates for environmental cases. Some funding comes from non-governmental organizations and governments on occasion, depending on the cases.

“We're the only clinic with a focus on the environment,” McClenaghan said, adding that the association focuses on environmental health and safety and vulnerable communities. “Everybody from Ontario benefits from our work. Without us they wouldn't have some of the key environmental legislation we have.”

At present, CELA is an intervenor in the provincial challenges to the federal carbon pricing program, representing Environmental Defence. Their programs director, Keith Brooks, told National Observer that this would hinder CELA’s ability to help Ontarians fight the volume of environmental legislation coming out of Queen’s Park, including cuts to endangered species protections, land-use protections, environmental assessments and conservation authorities. In the last year, the association has been “a very necessary and critical organization” at the forefront of the pushback against these pieces of legislation.

“They’ve been leading the conversation that explains what do these huge pieces of law actually mean,” Brooks said. “CELA advocates for changes to environmental laws and policies, and gets involved in government consultations, because they understand how laws should be written if they are to be effective in protecting the environment.”

WATCH: CELA lawyers Jacqueline Wilson and Theresa McClenaghan make Environmental Defence’s case in Saskatchewan

According to its 2018 Annual Report, the association said that it opposes Ontario's decision to end the cap-and-trade program and has "made recommendations for a new climate change mitigation and adaptation plan and sought enforceable greenhouse gas reduction targets, transparent and frequent progress reports, and programs to assist low-income and vulnerable communities in transitioning to a low-carbon economy and dealing with the impacts of climate change."

"We have long argued that governments must use multiple approaches to address this complex problem including putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions and ensuring that policies do not disproportionately impact low-income or vulnerable populations. As a founding member of the Low-Income Energy Network (LIEN), CELA has worked hard this year to bring the perspective of LIEN members and constituents with lived experience of energy poverty to consultations about addressing climate change." - CELA 2018 annual report.

And last year, the association helped address, among other things, the contamination of a mobile home park due to a neglected communal sewage system, as well as issues of noxious odours, pesticides and wrongful tree cutting on private/Crown land, and asbestos in schools.

CELA’S budget could mean ‘a death of institutional history and knowledge that is not found anywhere else’

After LAO's cuts, environmental advocates and legal experts fear CELA will be limited in its efforts to impact such law reform and community organizing work, although the exact impact remains unclear at present.

"We recognize that there is value in systemic work because it creates efficiencies," Mallin said. "We recognize that there is a value (to this work), but we also wanted to ensure that, if we've got to take the money from somewhere, it's not going to be from clinics that are providing direct client services to clients and communities. We did not want a client who is facing eviction to enter a clinic and the clinic turning them away to preserve what are important and valued supports, but in this reduced envelope we just don't have the luxury to continue at this time."

Attaran said this argument is “utter rubbish.”

“The systemic work is systemic because it impacts a large number of Ontarians. It’s really a false dichotomy that LAO has in mind,” he said. “It’s exceptionally sad to have CELA lose money… It's unfortunate to see them on the ropes now.”

Attaran recognized that LAO had no choice “but to make hard choices.” He said the problem isn’t with the agency but with the Ford government, “who leads one of the worst jurisdictions in the world for access to justice and has made it worse.”

Stewart doesn’t believe the budget cut is “accidental,” saying the Ford government “seems to want to weaken institutions that are there to basically hold them accountable and make better policies.”

If CELA’s operations are affected, it will mean “a death of institutional history and knowledge that is not found anywhere else,” Stewart said.

In a statement, Jesse Robichaud, spokesperson for Attorney General Caroline Mulroney, applauded the agency’s efforts “to ensure resources are targeted to direct, front-line services for people.”

“There is no doubt that some lawyers and other special-interest groups will resist renewed accountability with public dollars, but it is necessary to better serve Legal Aid Ontario’s clients and the taxpayers who pay the bill,” he wrote.

LAO representatives told reporters at Tuesday's briefing that they didn't expect a negative impact on operations, and said the government did not give the agency specific orders on the cuts or ask it to target Toronto.

"We tried to make sure that those specialty clinics had the most minimal impact we could deliver," said LAO chair Charles Harnick, who was appointed the day the cuts to LAO were delivered by the Ford government. "What we did to be principled... was that we tried, in all of our allocations, to preserve the one-on-one client service."

In an email sent to staff Wednesday morning and shared with National Observer, Legal Aid Ontario CEO David Field outlined changes and noted that the agency's original budget, which was set before the Ford government's budget was released, reflected a 10 per cent reduction in administrative costs.

"Recognizing the need to find further administrative efficiencies, LAO is on track to reducing administrative expenditures by at least another 10 per cent, for an approximate total of 20 per cent reduction in administrative expenses," Field wrote. "Above and beyond that, we are working to find additional savings. For example, in the coming weeks we will be capturing additional savings through attrition, voluntary exits and vacancy management, which we expect will result in approximately $9.5M in savings."

Field also noted the agency is working "collaboratively" on the Legal Aid Modernization Project with the Ministry of the Attorney General "to find ways to improve how we serve our client."

"This has been a difficult exercise for us," said Harnick, who served as attorney general under former Conservative premier Mike Harris and introduced the Legal Aid Services Act in 1998 that created the agency. "In some ways it's been very positive. We learned a lot of things because we were able to provide some equality across the system, and we articulated, perhaps for the first time, the importance of these services."

"We have tried so hard to minimize the impact (of these cuts)," Harnick added. "Our feeling is that there's very little more that we can do on the clinic side right now. The only other way to establish real savings in the area of clinics is around some kind of restructure. We are not there yet. We are certainly going to be talking about that.

Editor's note: this story was updated on June 12, 2019 at 5:55 p.m. with additional quotes and context.

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