“My Canadian experience has taught me that we absolutely need legal aid. We can’t allow any further cuts.”
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Marc Bloomfield
‘Travel to learn,’ said Winston Churchill, ‘return to inspire.’ It’s one of his lesser-known quotations, but applicable to my recent journey to Ontario, Canada to learn about its system of social justice. I was only away two weeks, but a lot seemed to happen during that time: HM Courts and Tribunals Service announced the closure of my court (for the third time); the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) was defeated in the High Court by the Law Society ([2018] EWHC 2094 (Admin); see also here); and it actually rained.
Why Canada?
In February 2018, I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to travel. It’s a yearly award, competitive, but if you have an idea that can bring positive change for others then you’re in with a chance. Mine had two aspects: looking at the use of ‘Trusted Help’ in Canada, and health/justice partnerships in Australia. This was the first leg of my trip.
It came about because of my experience of seeing increasing numbers of people in housing crisis, not having the help they need in the wake of LASPO. The door of the court is often the first place someone has access to advice and representation, and by this time they have the trauma of possibly losing their home. I wanted to find out how we can help people get early advice, before they reach crisis point, now that legal aid is no longer available for this purpose.
What did I learn?
What I found in Ontario was healthy legal aid provision, fully funded legal clinics and a justice system that puts people at its heart. It has 74 legal clinics that represent on poverty law issues and a private bar that represents on criminal, family and immigration law. The clinics have yearly presumptive funding and the bar is funded by legal aid certificates, similar to the UK.
The Law Foundation of Ontario (LFO) was set up in 1974 with a mandate to improve access to justice. It does this by giving 75 per cent of its revenue to Legal Aid Ontario and the remaining 25 per cent to innovative projects, services and research. This revenue derives from interest accrued from mixed trust accounts held by lawyers and paralegals. In the years 2005–14, this averaged $38m per annum.
It’s the LFO that is funding the ‘Trusted Help’ projects. I went to find out more about the upskilling of community workers to ‘issue spot’ and connect people with the lawyers who can help them. Ontario is huge, and distance and language are barriers to accessing legal advice, but the projects are finding ways to resolve these issues. More on this to come in a later issue of Legal Action, but it was such a contrast to my daily experience of working within our legal aid system.
How to inspire?
Well that’s a little harder, but it must be time for change when a High Court judgment opens with: ‘This is another claim for judicial review of a decision by the lord chancellor ... ’ The judgments in both the Law Centres Network1[2018] EWHC 1588 (Admin). and Law Society judicial reviews give me hope. The judicial scrutiny of the MoJ’s decision-making reflects the feelings of irrationality we have long felt over the last decade of cuts. The judicial comments in the Law Society’s judicial review, in response to the MoJ’s case, are scathing. They had no words that were deemed suitable: ‘It is difficult to express in language of appropriate moderation why we consider these arguments without merit.’ Surely the MoJ is no longer fit for purpose, its title now almost Orwellian.
What my Canadian experience has taught me is that we absolutely need legal aid. We can’t allow any further cuts to happen. We need to fight the systemic attack on our justice system together, across the whole sector, on all fronts. Which brings me nicely to one of Churchill’s better-known speeches …

About the author(s)

Description: Sue James
Sue James is CEO of LAG. She was previously director and housing solicitor at Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre and a founding trustee at Ealing Law...