What’s next for the Student Choice Initiative? Downtown Legal Services’ perspective on court decision

U of T closes online portal, uncertain future for SCI

What’s next for the Student Choice Initiative? Downtown Legal Services’ perspective on court decision

On November 21, the Divisional Court of Ontario struck down the Student Choice Initiative (SCI), leaving postsecondary institutions and student associations uncertain about how to proceed. Downtown Legal Services (DLS) Executive Director Lisa Cirillo told The Varsity that any plans by the province to repeal the decision or introduce legislation will be difficult.

While stakeholder groups struggle to make sense of the future, U of T has removed its incidental fee opt-out portal online as it “evaluate[s] the technical impact of the Divisional Court’s decision,” wrote a university spokesperson. The Ministry of Colleges and Universities (MCU) wrote to The Varsity that it “is currently reviewing the decision.”

Background of the SCI

In January, the SCI was announced as a provincial mandate to Ontario universities and colleges that opt-out options be provided for certain incidental fees that were deemed “non-essential,” with the government outlining the criteria for mandatory fees. In May, the York Federation of Students (YFS) and the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario (CFS–O) launched a legal challenge against the SCI, requesting that the court quash the initiative.

Following a court hearing in October, the Honourable Justices Harriet Sachs, David Corbett, and Lise Favreau ruled in favour of the YFS and the CFS–O, finding that the province was acting illegally by interfering in the relationship between postsecondary institutions and student associations.

Downtown Legal Services on the effects of decision

DLS is a legal aid clinic that is partially funded by student levies; it felt the effects of the SCI first hand. At its Annual General Meeting earlier this year, the University of Toronto Students’ Union announced that DLS had 19 per cent of students opt out of its fees.

Cirillo believes that while the government has the ability to appeal the decision or use the legislature to expand the powers of the province, the path ahead will be difficult for the province. “The court has laid out really firmly: this is the territory of universities and student unions within the universities, and we don’t believe that you can encroach on that.”

Recapping the court’s decision and the arguments presented by both sides, Cirillo said: “The court granted the application on the basis of the first [argument], they said that these directives were illegal and inconsistent with the legislative schemes… And they found they didn’t have to go to the other two arguments because they could decide the case on the basis of the first one.”

“The government had no legal basis to issue this directive, but I think it leaves us in such an interesting place because the universities and colleges had to comply,” Cirillo said. “[But] they’ve all created this enormous new electronic registration infrastructure that provides opportunities to opt out.”

On what quashing the directive will entail, Cirillo says that universities, independent from the government, could continue to open their opt-out portals, but whether that would be the case is up to the institutions themselves.

Cirillo points out a particular passage that summarizes the court’s answer to the province’s argument that the SCI couldn’t be struck down by the courts: “Neither argument justifies exempting the impugned directives from judicial review for legality. To hold otherwise would undercut the supremacy of the legislature and open the door for government by executive decree, a proposition repugnant to the core principles of parliamentary democracy.”

Downtown Legal Services hit by triple blow from Ford cuts

Student-run clinic faces uncertain future

Downtown Legal Services hit by triple blow from Ford cuts

“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.”