Area of Law: Legal Aid
Answer # 846
What is legal aid and who is eligible?Region: Ontario Answer # 846
What is legal aid?
Legal aid is a government program that helps people with a low income receive legal representation and advice. In Ontario, legal aid is managed and administered by Legal Aid Ontario (LAO). Although publicly funded, Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) is an independent, non-profit corporation providing legal aid services in Ontario.
Legal Aid Services Act (LASA, 2020)
The Legal Aid Services Act (LASA, 2020) was passed into law on July 8, 2020 and came into effect October 18, 2021. LASA governs the management and administration of legal aid in Ontario. Under LASA, the mandate of LAO is to provide high-quality legal aid services in English and French to financial eligible low-income clients. For more information on the Legal Aid Services Act (LASA, 2020), visit lasa2020rules.ca.
While legal aid is most often available for more serious criminal matters, such as where there is a strong likelihood of someone going to jail, as well as charges laid under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, it also covers many other legal issues.
Approximately 5,000 lawyers contribute to the legal aid program by accepting lower rates, and limits on hours billed for the legal services they give to LAO clients.
Services provided by LAO
LAO provides many services, including:
- Toll-free telephone service offering information and referrals and includes 20 minutes of free legal advice for family law matters: 1-800-668-8258
- Duty Counsel services provided for people who are in criminal, family or youth courts without a lawyer
- Community and Specialty Legal Clinics, funded by LAO, providing legal help for low-income individuals that focuses on Ontario Works and ODSP housing, health care and employment
- LawFacts.ca provides free online legal information about criminal, family, and refugee law, and court-related mental health issues in Ontario
- Family Law Service Centres (FLSC) across Ontario provide help for individuals who are separated and seeking child support, or are experiencing domestic violence and and trying to get custody or access to their children
- Refugee and immigration services
- Certificate Program, which provides for lawyer representation in serious and complex cases.
Legal aid is only available to people with certain types of legal problems. Depending on your situation, LAO may cover all or some of your legal costs.
It is important to note that community legal clinics run independently of LAO and have their own eligibility criteria. Please visit the Community Legal Clinic topic of Legal Line for more information.
Who is eligible?
To qualify for legal aid in Ontario you must have little or no money left after you pay for basic necessities like food and housing. People on social assistance almost always qualify for legal aid. You may be eligible for legal aid even if you have some money in the bank or even if you own a home.
The types of individuals who have also benefited from legal aid include:
- people accused of a criminal offence,
- single parents seeking child support from ex-partners,
- victims of domestic violence,
- parents seeking custody, support or access of children,
- people who identify as First Nation, Métis or Inuit
- people who are experiencing mental health or addiction issues, and
- refugees seeking Canadian immigration status, or immigrants facing deportation.
Again, depending on the type of assistance you require, as well as your financial situation, all, or only some of your legal costs may be covered. LAO has introduced financial eligibility guidelines that apply according to the degree of legal help needed.
1. Duty Counsel and summary legal advice
To qualify for legal aid services such as Duty Counsel assistance and summary legal advice (through the toll-free telephone service), your annual gross family income must be below a certain financial threshold, depending on the number of members of your family.
If you qualify you can get help from the Family Law Information Centre at your courthouse. The legal aid lawyer (called advice lawyers) can give you up to 20 minutes of free general advice and may also be able to give you a referral to a family law service centre.
2. Certificate Program – representation by a lawyer
A Legal Aid Certificate is a voucher that guarantees a private practice lawyer, who accepts your case will get paid for providing you with representation for a certain number of hours. In order to determine your financial eligibility for the Certificate program, you need to take a financial eligibility test.
To qualify for a Legal Aid Certificate for most family law cases, you must have a legal problem that LAO covers, and your annual gross family income and family size must meet certain requirements.
These amounts set out the eligibility threshold amounts when a contribution agreement is used.
3. Certificate Program – domestic violence cases
If you are experiencing domestic violence or in need of child protection law services, you can call Legal Aid Ontario at 1-800-668-8258 and get a free 2-hour consultation with a lawyer (no financial eligibility requirement). If you are financially eligible, you may also qualify for a Legal Aid Certificate which covers most of your legal aid fees. Certificates are only available for domestic violence cases in the following circumstances:
- Legal services are required for issues such as a contested issue and/or change to an existing family court order, or
- You are a survivor of domestic violence and you have no criminal record and are charged with assault against your violent partner; and you:
– have a continuing family law matter with LAO,
– identify as First Nation, Métis or Inuit, or you
– have on ongoing refugee status claim.
If your income is higher that the eligible limits, you may still be able to qualify for the Certificate Program, if:
- your income is below a second set of income levels (set out by LAO), and
- you enter into a Contribution Agreement.
A Contribution Agreement outlines how much you are to repay to LAO, based on the amount of your annual gross family income that is above the income limit. You may be required to repay some, or all of your legal fees. If LAO requires you to repay a portion of the legal costs, you will be permitted to make monthly payments.
If you do not want to sign a Contribution Agreement, or you think that the payments are too high, you will only be permitted to make a request for a review of the Agreement, under two circumstances:
- you are in debt; or
- you have high medical expenses.
Annual income thresholds are subject to change. Check with LAO for the current amounts. For more information about legal aid, including the most up-to-date information on services available and eligibility requirements, visit Legal Aid Ontario.
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