Relaxed Qualifying Rules for Ontario Legal Aid Plan
If you are a low-income earner with legal problems, there is good news for you: the Ontario Legal Aid Plan (OLAP) has recently announced that the rules for qualifying for Legal Aid will be gradually relaxed over the next three years.
OLAP was last overhauled in 1995, with the result that applicants had to meet certain strict earning thresholds before they would qualify for free legal assistance. Specifically, single individuals could qualify only if they earned less than $10,800 per year, while families could qualify only if they earned less than $24,000 per year.
The move is welcomed by critics of what had been viewed as inappropriately-low financial eligibility thresholds, particularly since they are significantly lower than what Statistics Canada itself considers to be “low income” in many parts of the country (defined as the point at which a person is allocating a larger-than-average share of his or her income to necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing). The figures vary by certain factors such as region, but in large cities like Toronto for example, a single person who earns less than $22,229 is considered “low income” for Statistics Canada purposes. This is more than double the eligibility cut-off for Legal Aid.
Also, critics have frequently pointed to the fact that Canada’s qualifying threshold for Legal Aid compares very unfavourably to other parts of the world, where limits are higher and access to legal assistance is accordingly far more generous. They also claim that unrealistic financial thresholds give rise to access-to justice-issues, since they result in more unrepresented litigants in courtrooms, longer delays in trials (due to litigants’ unfamiliarity with legal procedures), and correspondingly increased costs to government and society-at-large.
Therefore, the decision to readjust the qualifying rules on a phased-in basis is certainly a positive one. It will assuredly broaden access to the Ontario legal system, by assisting a larger swath of financially-disadvantaged members of society. However, the change may also impact those who are currently on the borderline: for example, the raising of the qualifying financial threshold means that those earning at the existing cut-off (meaning $10,800 for singles and $24,000 for families) might still be eligible for Legal Aid under the new regime, but may be required to pay back some or all of the money.