Ontario law schools quietly considered challenging province on legal aid fee status

Queen’s, Western did not participate in initiative to pressure the province to deem legal aid fees mandatory under the Student Choice Initiative

Ontario universities considered challenging Ford government on legal aid status.
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Ontario law schools quietly considered an effort to reverse the removal of legal aid clinic fees from the slate of mandatory student levies under the Student Choice Initiative, documents obtained by The Journal through a freedom of information request show.

In an email dated March 5, Edward Iacobucci, dean of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, implored provosts from universities across the province to collectively challenge the Ford government’s decision to allow students to opt out of fees that support student legal aid services.

The University of Western Ontario, the University of Ottawa, York University, the University of Windsor, and Queen’s University were among the schools contacted by Iacobucci.

In his letter, Iacobucci wrote that the students fees are “crucial to the continued viability of [legal aid] clinics.”

The provosts and vice-presidents from the University of Windsor, University of Toronto, and University of Ottawa expressed conditional support for the idea. Western declined involvement, writing “our assessment is that it would be difficult to argue for this to be a mandatory fee.”

“Legal services and health services support the student’s ability to participate in academic and community life in a healthy and productive manner,” Iacobucci wrote. “Legal issues are like health issues; the student does not know when they will arise. Similarly, once they do arise, they have far reaching implications and are often disruptive to the wellbeing of the student.”

He also wrote that legal aid clinics provide a vital experiential learning opportunity for law students, and that “their experience encourages a life-long practice of giving back to their communities.”

Iacobucci declined to comment when contacted.

According to internal emails, Queen’s decided not to participate in the initiative. 

In a written statement to The Journal, Tom Harris, interim provost and Vice-Principal (Academic), explained the decision.

“Queen’s Faculty of Law worked with their colleagues at other institutions in considering advocacy for the inclusion of law clinics under the mandatory schedule of fees,” Harris stated. “We allowed the experts in this area to develop the case.”

He added the University “did not make any separate interventions in regards to this subject.”

Queen’s Legal Aid (QLA), which levies a student fee, is a student legal aid clinic providing services to low-income residents in Kingston, Napanee and South Frontenac County.

QLA receives 80 per cent of its funding from Legal Aid Ontario (LAO), an independent but publicly funded non-profit, which provides legal services for low-income individuals throughout Ontario.

Recently, the organization lost 30 per cent of its budget to cuts from the province.

A special agreement with LAO allows QLA to extend its services to all Queen’s students, regardless of income level, provided they’ve paid their student fees.

As a result of the Student Choice Initiative, the $5.50 fee will become optional for the 2019-20 school year. Students who opt out of the fee will not be able to access QLA’s services unless they can prove their household income falls below the LAO’s requirements.

“Students have unique legal problems,” Crew said in a phone interview with The Journal. “In particular, we have an awful lot of student clientele with respect to landlord-tenant matters in town.”

Crew also said many students seek the Clinic’s help with open alcohol offences under the University District Safety Initiative, or with traffic offences.

Crew estimates that one-third of the clients are Queen’s students. In the 2018-19 school year, QLA was supported by a mandatory $5.00 student activity fee, allowing the Clinic to hire more staff.

QLA will have to work with the University to figure out who is and isn’t eligible for legal assistance, based on whether or not they pay the option levy, according to Crew. 

He also emphasized QLA would work to ensure changes in funding don’t compromise the Clinic’s ability to provide legal assistance.

“For the first year at least, we’re committed to keeping our current staff levels, so that if every single student opted in, we’ll be able to meet that demand for legal services,” he stated, adding he believes the fee is worth it.

“It’s a legal insurance policy for $5.50."

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