Legal Aid Ontario cuts Guelph, Wellington family law clinic for domestic violence victims

WELLINGTON COUNTY – Two organizations which provide services for vulnerable and low income residents across Guelph and Wellington County received notifications on July 5 that Legal Aid Ontario would no longer provide family law services effective immediately.

For the last three years, a Legal Aid Ontario lawyer provided duty counsel to domestic violence victims at Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis (GWWIC) on Mondays from 9am to noon.

GWWIC executive director Sly Castaldi told the Advertiser the program was highly successful and the agency was not expecting the cut.

“It was shocking. I had no heads up, I had no warning,” said Castaldi.

From April 1, 2018 to March 31, 2019, GWWIC served 1,204 women and 53 children through all of its programs including its shelter, sexual assault centre, transition program, rural women’s support program, family court support program and human trafficking program, and responded to 2,989 crisis calls on its 24-hour crisis lines.

“When women who are in abusive situations are going through the family court system, it’s a very dangerous time. Having [the lawyer] come here working with our family court support worker and other supports that the women can get from our agency; it’s a best practice model,” said Castaldi.

What was particularly beneficial to the women at the GWWIC who made use of the service was the consistency and level of service through the clinic.

“The lawyer that we had was very well trained in the issues of domestic violence. He understood the issues really well and he was the consistent lawyer,” said Castaldi.

Since January 2019 until the end of June of this year, the Legal Aid Ontario lawyer had 122 appointments and averaged seeing five clients at GWWIC during the three-hour clinic.

Those statistics include many women who received support from GWWIC outside of Guelph in Wellington County.

“Absolutely, women in the rest of the county used the services of that lawyer as well,” said GWWIC Rural Women’s Support program manager and volunteer coordinator Jacinta Cassidy.

“If they had an appointment to meet with the Legal Aid Ontario lawyer, we would help them with transportation to get them there,” Cassidy added.

Those who made use of the in-house clinic at GWWIC can still receive family law services elsewhere according to Legal Aid Ontario senior media relations advisor, Graeme Burk.

“The fact is that we have not cut family law services, they can still come to our courthouse and to our family law information centre and get the same information. They can still call our toll free number,” said Burk.

However, according to Castaldi other service models present challenges to the women GWWIC support.

“Having to go through either different people or lining up at the court house to see if you can actually get seen is not ideal. The courthouse can be very intimidating  for a lot of people and if there are any other barriers  like language or anything else it becomes even more difficult for women and so we engaged in this partnership three years ago because things weren’t working very well before,” said Castaldi.

Originally the agreement with Legal Aid Ontario to provide a family law clinic was reached with Legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County (LCGWC), which helped arrange the duty council service for GWWIC.

On Monday afternoons from 12:30 to 3pm the same Legal Aid Ontario lawyer would provide a clinic at  LCGWC after his appointments at GWWIC.

LCGWC also  received notice July 5 that the program was cut.

“It really was a success and it was an enhancement to access for justice. If we go back to just having the three hours on Fridays at the courthouse, it is a really step backwards,” said LCGWC executive director Anthea Millikin.

At LCGWC the clinic was highly integrated with other services. Situated at Guelph Community Health Centre, low income residents would receive help with their housing and income issues and then be brought over to the family and criminal law clinic.

“Similarly in terms of the county we do a lot of work with other agencies like the Mount Forest Family Health Team … When we knew that there was someone who would have difficulty getting a ride to Guelph we have been able to arrange with duty counsel for a dedicated phone call,” said Millikin.

According to Burk there were a host of factors that led Legal Aid Ontario’s decision to cancel the clinic at both organizations.

“It’s an issue of budgets, it’s an issue of staffing, it’s an issue of how best to serve low income clients in the region and there is a number of ways we have to do that – especially in a situation like this where it is easily obtainable elsewhere,” said Burk.

In April the provincial government cut Legal Aid Ontario’s budget this year by $133-million.

“I think part of it is just simply the low attendance and at this point, with everything we are having to examine services and try and serve the most number of people,” said Burk.

However, Millikin and Castaldi do not agree with the claim the clinics were under attended.

“I have to say that the context is that 12:30 to 3pm is not a lot of time and certainly in our view it was always very busy and very popular,” said Millikin.

GWWIC cancelled 23 clinic appointments already booked for July and two for August.

“I know that their legal aid has received big cuts and I know that they are in a difficult situation, but it would have been helpful to sort of have a conversation about it, figure out if we could do something else, figure out an alternative plan, do a transition out or whatever,” said Castaldi.

“Our family court support worker will continue to work with women but having a lawyer on site working with our women it’s just a really good model and right now we are trying to think of what we can do,” she added.