“A difficult and uncertain time,” is how Acting Executive Director Karen Bellinger described the present and future of Downtown Legal Services (DLS). Recent announcements by the Ford government entailed that Legal Aid Ontario funding would be reduced, that Faculty of Law tuition would be decreased by 10 per cent, and that students now have the option to opt out of DLS’ incidental fee due to the Student Choice Initiative (SCI). All pose heavy consequences for the student-run legal aid clinic.
Five staff lawyers, about 120 law students, and volunteers addressed over 650 files last year at DLS, providing free legal services to U of T students and low-income individuals in the community in the areas of housing, criminal, employment, family, and refugee and immigration law.
For students, DLS provides free legal services on issues ranging from academic offences to landlord disputes, maintains a free notary and affidavit service, and acts as a training ground for law students.
A wide array of students seek help at DLS, explained Bellinger, however, most commonly DLS handles cases of academic offence, housing disputes, and employment issues. A 2011 Globe and Mail report found that international students are disproportionately represented in academic offence cases at Ontario universities, usually due to a language or cultural barrier. Bellinger agrees that this is still the case when profiling the students DLS helps at U of T.
“A very grim outlook”
The first and second rounds of potential cuts came in January. With the announcement of the SCI, students can now opt out of the $3.29 incidental fee that makes up 30 per cent of the DLS budget. The Faculty of Law, which also supports the DLS, will take hits to its budget through a 10 per cent cut in domestic tuition and subsequent tuition freeze, announced at the same time.
A $133 million cut to Legal Aid Ontario, announced in April, muddied an already uncertain future for DLS, which now has a majority of its income sources either in jeopardy or already cut.
“We’re getting hit from all sides, really, unfortunately. And… it most likely means that we’re going to have to scale down divisions or work, at the very least, if not potentially lose some [divisions]. It’s a very grim outlook.”
What comes next?
Bellinger described an atmosphere of community and support at the DLS office in response to the precarity of its ongoing work, without any information on student levy funding until late September to early October — and a fiscal year that started in March. However, the organization is carrying on with bated breath.
The optimistic outcome for Bellinger is for students to recognize that “student groups are essential services.” However, she also acknowledged that economically vulnerable students need to save money where they can.
“No one thinks they’re going to need a lawyer. No one plans on that… We’re only needed when something goes badly,” said Bellinger.
“[The cuts] are going to mean that people who are the most vulnerable in our society and communities will not have anywhere to turn. The vast majority of our clients are people… who don’t have any other option.”