Province amends Bill 161; confirms legal clinics access to justice and poverty law mandate

Posted by Theresa McClenaghan, CELA Executive Director and Counsel

Earlier this month, CELA submitted a detailed brief prepared by CELA Counsel Richard Lindgren to the Standing Committee on Justice Policy regarding Bill 161, the Smarter, Stronger Justice Act 2020. This Bill impacts the Class Proceedings Act and the Legal Aid Services Act, among others.

CELA’s submission noted that the proposed changes to the Class Proceedings Act would make it far more difficult to ever have environmental claims certified as class actions. CELA had called on the province to make amendments that would make environmental class actions easier, not harder, since they have so rarely been certified in the 25 years since class actions have been allowed in Ontario.

As for the Legal Aid Services Act, CELA endorsed the submission of the Association of Legal Clinics of Ontario and joined them in calling for restoration of a purposes clause in the law. This clause would set out that legal aid services are intended to provide services to low income and disadvantaged communities. We also sought clarification as to the areas of law that clinics practice beyond a narrow definition of poverty law.

In my deputation before the standing committee, I described how CELA’s work applies a lens of examining environmental impacts on vulnerable communities and working toward access to environmental justice.

Bill 161, with amendments, has gone to Third Reading and will likely pass within the next week.

Amendments to the Class Proceedings Act did not correct the areas of concern that CELA had highlighted. Accordingly, in our view, it will be even more difficult to certify class actions of all types in Ontario, and particularly in relation to environmental claims.

More encouragingly, amendments to the Legal Aid Services Act portion of the Bill were included to add the phrases to “promote access to justice”, and to “be responsive to the needs of low-income and disadvantaged communities in Ontario” to the principles governing the delivery of legal aid services.

In addition, the definition of “Poverty Law” was made inclusive of law relating to matters that particularly affect low income individuals, including a list of areas of law such as housing and shelter and income maintenance. Legal aid services also continue for human rights law, health law, employment law, and several other areas of law that clinics also provide. CELA is supportive of these amendments to the Bill as they provide important clarity about clinic law services and legal aid services generally in Ontario.