Legal aid for refugees is essential and must be adequately funded

Canadian Council for Refugees

Media Release

For immediate release
25 May 2017

Legal aid for refugees is essential and must be adequately funded

The Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) today called on the federal and provincial governments to provide increased and sustainable legal aid funding to represent refugees and vulnerable migrants in refugee and immigration proceedings.

Recently Legal Aid Ontario invited input on how cuts should be made to legal representation for refugees. There are concerns that other provinces might go down the same road.

“Cutting legal representation for refugees is unacceptable,” said Loly Rico, CCR President. “They need a lawyer to help them negotiate a complex process where their basic rights – even their right to life – may be at stake. Refugees and other vulnerable migrants have the least voice and power in our society: they should be priorities for services, not the first to be cut.”

Legal aid for refugee and immigration services represent only 6% of Legal Aid Ontario’s budget. If cuts have to be made, it should not be refugees that are made to pay.

At issue are Canada’s international human rights obligations and rights guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It is also unacceptable to make refugees the pawns in a dispute between levels of government. Using refugees in this way undermines public support for refugees when in fact government costs are trivial. The annual federal contribution to refugee legal aid is 35 cents per Canadian. The federal government is spending forty times that amount on Canada 150. The cut that Legal Aid Ontario is proposing to make to refugee services represents less than 2% of what the Ontario government spent on the Pan-Am Games.

Denying legal representation to refugee claimants would be contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms: the Supreme Court has ruled that legal representation is required when the right to life, liberty and security of the person is at stake, as it is in the case of refugees. Far from saving money, if cuts are made governments risk facing expensive constitutional challenges.

Rather than cutting legal representation, all the relevant government entities should reform their policies and practices to be more efficient. There are numerous ways in which government funds, including for legal aid, are being wasted: these have been pointed out and yet the federal government fails to act. Some examples:

  • Reform the refugee determination system to eliminate the “Designated Country of Origin” regime, which the government and Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) evaluations have shown is counter-productive.
  • Reform the refugee determination system to modify the timelines for hearings, which the government and IRB evaluations have shown are contributing to wasteful hearing postponements.
  • Provide a regularization option for legacy claimants (people waiting for a hearing since before December 15, 2012), rather than forcing them to go through a refugee hearing process.
  • Stop trying to strip permanent residents of their status through cessation (even when they are well-established in Canada, have citizen children, etc.)
  • Stop moving to deport people when it causes family separation (and they will likely eventually be authorized to return).

The CCR is ready and eager to advise on how government policies and practices could be reformed to be more efficient and achieve significant savings for all. Cutting legal aid to refugee claimants is not the answer.

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Colleen French, Communication and Networking Coordinator, (514) 277-7223, ext. 1, (514) 602-2098 (cell),