Legal Aid: A View from Ontario

In this blogpost, I will outline the key features of the legal aid system in Ontario. I will also talk about how the network of legal clinics operates and what aspects are relevant for the delivery of legal aid in Alberta

With an annual budget of $487,655,000 for 2017-18, Legal Aid Ontario (“LAO”) is the largest legal aid service in Canada.[1] In comparison, Legal Aid Alberta’s budget for 2017-18 was only $95,645,000.[2] Per capita (based on most recent population estimates), Ontario spends $33.84 per person on legal aid annually,[3] while Alberta spends $22.09.[4]

Created in 1967, LAO provides legal aid services to low-income individuals through duty counsel, community legal clinics, public legal education, summary legal advice, alternative dispute resolution, self-help materials, and legal representation.

Delivery Model

Ontario, Alberta, and New Brunswick are the only provinces predominantly using the judicare model of service delivery, where lawyers from private practice represent clients. By way of a certificate, the legal aid programs agree in advance to pay those lawyers for a certain number of hours of work (at an agreed-upon hourly rate that is below what lawyers would charge privately). In provinces where the staff model is predominant (e.g. Quebec, B.C.), it has been argued that the staff model is “less costly than its judicare counterpart because of economies of scale and specialization, particularly in processing high-volume, more routine cases; [i]s likely to yield more consistent quality of service; and could be made more accessible to clients through location of Staff Offices in client communities.”[5]

Nonetheless, Legal Aid Ontario provides judicare, or certificate, representation in matters pertaining to domestic violence, family law, immigration and refugee law, and criminal law.[6] The services provided by Legal Aid Alberta through the certificate system are almost identical.[7]

Legal Aid: More Accessible in Alberta

It is more difficult for Ontarians to qualify for legal aid than for Albertans. In fact, in some cases the income difference is as high as 35%. As the table below shows, except for a family of two, Ontarians have a higher threshold of access than Albertans.

However, Ontarians whose income is over the amount in column A but below that in column B might still be eligible for legal aid if they agree in writing to repay some or all of their legal fees. It is important to note that the income criteria are also different when there is domestic violence. Finally, LAO has made services for vulnerable groups such as individuals experiencing domestic violence, mental health or addiction issues; or who identify as First Nation, Métis or Inuit a priority.

Income to Qualify for Legal Aid – A Comparison Between Ontario[8] and Alberta[9]

Family sizeIncome (A)Income (B)Domestic violence  (gross family income) AlbertaDifference
2$25,003$30,110$32,131$24,333– 2%
Single boarders$9,501$10,973N/A$19,653106%

Network of Legal Clinics – A Model for Alberta?

One of the key characteristics of the Ontario delivery model is the large network of legal clinics providing access to legal aid. The legal services provided by clinics to low income individuals and disadvantaged communities in Ontario include referrals, advice, brief services, casework, law reform, public legal education and community development.

Represented by the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario (ACLCO), there are 73 community legal clinics in Ontario. Of these, 60 serve specific geographic communities across Ontario. Another 13 are “specialty clinics” which do not serve a specific geographic community, but instead offer legal services to specific groups.[10] Some of these specialty clinics include:
Advocacy Centre for Elderly

  • Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario
  • Income Security Advocacy Centre
  • Justice for Children and Youth
  • Services d’aide juridique du Centre francophone de Toronto[11]

The Governance Model

The legal clinics, which are independent and governed by their respective community-elected boards of directors, receive their core funding from LAO. A funding agreement that includes a Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”),[12] a Consultation Policy[13] and a Dispute Resolution Policy[14] governs their relationship with LAO. The Legal Aid Services Act[15] established this relationship between LAO and the legal clinics in the province.

The Ontario model empowers communities and grass-roots organizations to deliver legal aid. Located where their clientele lives and led by boards of directors representative of their communities, the legal clinics are best-placed to offer legal services adapted to the needs of their clients.

That said, LAO provides extensive administrative and legal support services to the clinics to help them fulfill their mandate, including such services to caseworkers delivering legal services as legal research, a clinic law database, publications, litigation support and continuing legal education materials. In fact, Article 9 of the MOU stipulates that “the responsibility for the success of the […] the clinic system in delivering high-quality clinic law services to low income individuals and disadvantaged communities in Ontario is shared by LAO and [the clinics] and is enhanced by LAO leadership and support.”[16]

The decentralized and hybrid model used in Ontario where nimble, local legal clinics have access to the resources and support of LAO to offer services to their communities has been very successful in Ontario. It might be worth exploring whether a similar model could be adapted in Alberta to reach out and provide legal services to smaller communities or groups such as indigenous Albertans, Francophones, immigrants, youth or persons with disabilities who might benefit from specific legal, cultural or linguistic skills.

More Money, Please: The Need for a Business Case

The model discussed above could help improve access to the legal system in Alberta by leveraging limited resources. In Alberta, the lack of funding for legal aid has often been met with resourceful community solutions, including the creation of not-for-profit organizations which help low income people in a less systematic way. Unfortunately, many of those organizations lack access to the long term, predictable funding that would enable them to expand their services in a cohesive, well-planned way.

Systematic lack of funding for legal aid programs across the country means that a large number of citizens are denied the help they need because income qualification levels for legal aid are set too low. People who earn too much to qualify for legal aid, but not enough to hire lawyers too often end up unable to resolve legal matters affecting such fundamental aspects of their lives as their employment, housing, family structure and immigration status.

Properly funding legal aid would have real and long-lasting societal benefit. Some have called for cost-benefit analysis studies in order to make a business case and build political support for better funding.[17] Unless and until our public officials and the Canadians who elect them are shown the benefits, legal aid will probably remain the poor cousin of our social safety net.

[1] Legal Aid Ontario, 2017-2018 Annual Report, at 47, online: <>.

[2] Legal Aid Alberta, Annual Report 2017/18, at 31, online: <>.

[3] Ontario, Ministry of Finance, “Ontario Fact Sheet February 2019”, online: <>.

[4] Alberta, “Quarterly Population Report: Third Quarter 2018”, at 1, online: <>.

[5] Ontario, Ministry of the Attorney General, Report of the Ontario Legal Aid Review, A Blueprint for Publicly Funded Legal Services, (1996) Introduction to Chapter 7: The Choice of Delivery Models, online:<>.

[6] Legal Aid Ontario website accessed February 15, 2019, online: <>.

[7] Legal Aid Alberta website accessed February 15, 2019, online: <>.

[8] Legal Aid Ontario website accessed February 12, 2019, online: <>.

[9] Legal Aid Alberta website accessed February 12, 2019, online: <>.

[10] Legal Aid Ontario website accessed February 12, 2019, online: <>.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario website accessed February 15, 2019, online: <>

[13] Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario website accessed February 15, 2019, online: <>.

[14] Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario accessed February 15, 2019, online: <>.

[15] Legal Aid Services Act, SO 1998, c 26.

[16] Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario website accessed February 15, 2019, online: <>.

[17] Slaw website accessed February 20, 2019, online: <>.

This entry was posted in Civil Litigation, Family Law, Human Rights / Constitutional Law, legal aid, Legal Resources, Poverty law, Public Policy, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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