Letter: Increase Legal Aid Funding for Refugees

Legal Aid for Refugees

UPDATE: On June 27, 2017, CPJ learned that the Ontario government has decided to maintain the current level of funding for legal aid services. This development will allow refugee claimants and migrants to access legal aid services in Ontario even after July 1, (which was when proposed cuts were to be implemented). While this is good news for refugee claimants, migrants, and advocacy organizations like CPJ, there is still work to be done. We need to continue to advocate for increased federal funding to enhance refugee claimants' and migrants' opportunities for proper representation at their proceedings. 

There are still concerns that the Legal Aid of Ontario (LAO) may subsequently cut all services for the rest of the fiscal year, if talks with the federal government go awry. The British Columbia Legal Services Society has announced plans to stop accepting applications for immigration and refugee cases on August 1, 2017, due to insufficient funding. It is clear that although there is some success, we need to intensify our advocacy efforts to ensure that legal aid services remain accessible to refugee claimants and migrants in Canada.


Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) joins the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) to call on the Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship, Ahmed Hussen, to increase legal aid funding for refugee claimants and migrants. In a letter addressed to the Minister, CPJ noted that recently proposed cuts to legal aid funding by the provinces will reduce refugee claimants’ access to legal counsel, especially when such claimants cannot afford to hire a lawyer.

CPJ believes that all refugee claimants should be able to access legal aid services when they need counsel or representation at their proceedings. Such proceedings are very defining for claimants. They constitute the difference between life and death for certain refugee claimants. Hence, CPJ urges the Minister to ensure that the federal government works with the provinces to ensure that budgetary challenges do not impede refugee claimants' opportunities for proper legal representation at their proceedings.

Letter

June 16, 2017
Dear Minister Hussen,

Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) writes today to ask that the federal government increase legal aid funding for refugees and vulnerable migrants whose access to legal representation, for their proceedings, is currently threatened by proposed cuts to legal aid.

CPJ promotes public justice in Canada by shaping key public policy debates through research and analysis, publishing, and public dialogue. CPJ encourages citizens, leaders in society, and governments to support policies and practices which reflect God’s call for love, justice, and environmental flourishing.

Everyone in Canada, whether citizens or refugees, is guaranteed the right to legal counsel when there are threats to the right to life, liberty, and security of person, as held under Section 7 of the Charter. For refugee claimants and migrants without financial security, access to legal aid is a valuable resource.

CPJ has long supported legal aid for refugee claimants and migrants. Our 2015 report, “The Invisible Victims” highlights that legal aid plays a tremendous role in refugee claimants’ ability to successfully navigate Canada’s complex legal system.

The costs of limiting refugee claimants’ and migrants’ opportunities for fair proceedings far outweigh the financial costs involved in maintaining legal aid. For some claimants, legal aid could make the difference between safety in Canada, and persecution, torture, or even death, if returned to their countries of origin. Many refugee claimants and migrants do not speak English or French. Neither are they conversant with Canada’s legal and immigration systems, to enable them to put their claims together for the best possible outcome.

Legal aid provision is a federal-provincial responsibility. The federal government must contribute sufficiently to legal aid in the provinces, to accommodate for shortages in provincial budgets. Provisions were made in the 2017 budget for legal aid. About $62.9 million over the next five years, (and $11.5 million yearly thereafter) will be used to fund legal aid services in the country. Given these financial commitments, it is important to maintain legal aid for refugee claimants and migrants.

Instead of limiting refugee claimants’ and migrants’ access to legal aid, we urge you to focus on increasing the Immigration and Refugee Board’s (IRB) capacity to hear cases more quickly. The surge in asylum claims in recent months will pose a serious procedural challenge to the IRB, if the government does not meet such demand with additional resources.

CPJ is proud of the leading role our country has taken on refugee resettlement and support. However, we must ensure that we do not take decisions that threaten our most-cherished values and international human rights commitments.

We thank you very much for your time and consideration of this matter. We look forward to a reply at your early convenience.

Sincerely,

(Rev.) James C. Dekker
Chairman of the Board