Refugees will no longer be covered by legal aid for appeals and federal court reviews of negative and allegedly wrongful asylum and deportation decisions as of this week.
In a letter released late Monday, Legal Aid Ontario CEO David Field said the agency has suspended paying for new legal services for immigration and refugee clients, except for the preparation of asylum claim forms. The move comes after Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government announced cuts in Thursday’s provincial budget to refugee and immigration cases — part of a 30 per cent or $133 million reduction to Legal Aid Ontario’s annual budget.
Field stressed the importance of the asylum claim forms, which will be covered by federal funding.
“The Basis of Claim form is the first, and often most important, stage in the refugee process as it sets out a refugee claimant’s story and their reasons for leaving their country of origin, and sets out the legal case for their refugee claim,” Field wrote.
“Basis of Claim preparation is the highest priority service and provides a strong foundation for clients to be successful in their claims.”
Legal aid had anticipated handling up to 16,000 asylum claims this year, at a cost of about $22.6 million, including paying legal counsel at refugee hearings.
Appeals and other immigration cases such as fighting the revocation of permanent resident status were projected to cost $5.2 million.
Field said legal aid may tap into federal funding estimated at between $13 million and $16.5 million for these services in this fiscal year while the province covers the transition costs.
In a joint statement released Monday evening, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers and Ontario Refugee Lawyers Association said refugees are among the most vulnerable people Legal Aid Ontario serves.