A good chunk of the legal aid services for refugees will be suspended starting on July 1 as Legal Aid Ontario struggles to find 40 percent in budget savings from serving the vulnerable group.
It is too early to confirm what services would be cut from the refugee law program as a province-wide consultation is set to begin on Thursday, but three options are under consideration:
Suspending all refugee and immigration services when funding runs out in August and September
Restricting the coverage to the representation of asylum-seekers in their refugee proceedings, such as filing claims and preparation for and attendance at hearings
Limiting coverage for asylum-seekers to the preparation of the claim only, but continuing to represent clients at the refugee appeals tribunal and federal court.
“LAO has supported over-expenditures in the refugee program for a number of years and cannot do so any longer, given the increase in demand for services and LAO’s budget challenges in other programs,” the agency said in the consultation paper posted on its website Friday.
“LAO recognizes that this will have a serious impact on vulnerable clients and that difficult choices will regrettably need to be made to achieve a balanced-budget plan.”
The agency’s refugee program has historically cost $20 million annually.
However, over the past two years, the cost has increased dramatically, to $27 million last year, and it is forecast to rise to $33.6 million in 2017, thanks to the spike of asylum-seekers crossing the border from the U.S.
As refugee and immigration laws fall under the federal government, Ottawa contributes about $7 million a year to LAO’s refugee program but that base amount has not changed since 2002.
In December, after LAO threatened to pull its refugee services due to a budget shortfall, both Ontario and Ottawa injected a one-off sum of $7.72 million to help it through the crisis.
Advocates said they could see the writing on the wall when Ottawa refused to make any substantial increase in its legal aid support for refugees in the 2017 budget in April.
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