Meaningful representation a priority in midst of LAO changes
Jan 31, 2013 By Matthew Friedberg
In recent months, there has been a noticeable dip in the number of certificates being issued by Legal Aid Ontario (LAO), along with an increase in serious cases being turned down, says Toronto criminal lawyer Matthew Friedberg.
“This often results in the accused being forced to use duty counsel, who already have overwhelming caseloads,” says Friedberg. “The end result is often an accused that cannot obtain meaningful access to the justice system.”
Earlier this month, LAO addressed recent rumours on its website, stating, “Duty counsel lawyers will take on any matter which they feel they have the abilities, experience, and time to appropriately represent an accused. If a duty counsel lawyer feels that a matter requires a certificate, it will be issued.”
But a recent Law Times column noted Toronto defence lawyers are feeling the impacts from a shift to the system. Read Law Times
“I am very concerned about the future of criminal defence counsel in Ontario and whether the accused will obtain meaningful representation,” says Friedberg, a partner at Caramanna Friedberg LLP. “With Legal Aid now second guessing and undermining the Crown charge screening form process, it seems to me that there is little certainty as to whether an accused will now qualify for Legal Aid and thus, whether counsel should proceed in assisting a prospective client at the outset of a case.”
Friedberg says, “Regrettably, Legal Aid sometimes takes months to decide whether an accused will obtain a certificate. Historically, based on a Crown screening form, counsel would often be able to ascertain whether or not an accused would be issued a certificate down the road. Thus, an accused would obtain meaningful representation based on the expectation of a certificate.”
This is no longer the case, says Friedberg.
“Legal Aid’s recent foray into questioning the Crown charge screening form process is a significant erosion of the accused’s access to counsel in a reasonable time and will result in further backlogs in the courts with more unrepresented accused.”
The Law Times column notes the process for obtaining certificates has changed significantly in the last two decades. Twenty years ago, it says, clients who applied for certificates generally received them. In the ’90s, eligibility became more complex, and is even more stringent today.
On its website, LAO states since April 2012, it has issued 45,949 criminal certificates.