Ontario Budget: Legal Aid Criteria to Change So More People Will Qualify

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Ontario budget: legal aid criteria to change

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TORONTO - The threshold to qualify for legal aid in Ontario will rise for the first time in 18 years, the government announced in its budget, though to what level it did not say.

A single person in Ontario making more than $10,800 a year -- gross income -- currently won't qualify for full legal aid representation. That amount is roughly half of the poverty line.

The Liberal government's budget, tabled Thursday, revealed that raising the criteria would allow an additional one million low-income Ontarians to qualify for legal aid "when fully implemented." It did not specify a timeline for full implementation.

Ontario's legal aid eligibility criteria have not changed since 1996 and every year that the rate remained stagnant more people have been excluded, says Legal Aid Ontario's policy director on financial eligibility.

There are now approximately one million fewer Ontarians eligible for full legal aid than there were in 1996, according to a Legal Aid Ontario report.

It estimates a similar number, about 1.2 million people, are below the poverty line but are not poor enough to qualify for full legal aid.

Nye Thomas, Legal Aid Ontario's director general of policy and strategic research, said when he asked the government for specifics he was told they will come in the printed budget papers.

However, he said the province's commitment is in line with what Legal Aid Ontario had proposed -- that is to bring eligibility up to the poverty line over a number of years.

"It's great news," Thomas said. "It addresses a long-standing issue for access to justice in Ontario. It's going to help thousands of low-income families so it's very, very good news."

Some provinces -- notably British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec -- have already raised their eligibilities in the intervening years as the criteria lost ground relative to the cost of living, Thomas said.

B.C.'s eligibility for a single person is a net income of $17,760, in Alberta it's $16,176 and in Quebec it's roughly the same as Alberta but as gross income.

Like most provinces, Ontario has different levels of criteria, by which people can qualify for other legal aid services, such as duty counsel assistance and legal advice, but not if they make more than $18,000 a year as a single person.

The threshold rises by family size, up to $43,000 for a family of five to qualify for legal advice or duty counsel assistance.

Legal Aid Ontario can't set its own eligibility criteria, as it's locked into regulations, so it had been asking the government for an increase for several years. …

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