TORONTO — Premier Doug Ford was slammed by opposition MPPs during question period Thursday over his “empty promise” to provide free legal aid to anyone who gives him a call.
On April 22, Ford made an impromptu call to a radio station, AM640 Global News, and said, “If anyone needs support on legal aid, feel free to call my office. I will guarantee you that you will have legal aid.”
He made that statement after his government slashed funding for legal aid by 40 per cent.
“The premier was on the phone reassuring people that he would actually take care of business and get them the services they need,” said Liberal MPP Michael Coteau. “Instead, they were shuffled from office to office to office without any hope or any help. Worse, these promises by the premier could be seen as potential political interference.”
Attorney General Doug Downey told HuffPost Canada afterward that he “encourages any Ontarian to phone us, whether it be the premier, or my office … to tell us about their inability or ability to access the system.”
In the days following Ford’s promise, staff attempted damage control and raised the issue of political interference, according to emails recently obtained through a freedom of information request by Michael Spratt, an Ottawa criminal defence lawyer.
Jean-Philippe Chartre, a communications and issues management official in the attorney general’s office, sent an email on April 23 to the premier’s staff saying, “Issue: Potential criticism of political interference on the grant of certificates for legal aid.”
He said that Legal Aid Ontario emphasizes it is an “arm’s-length agency independent from the government” that ensures “there is no government interference in decisions regarding which cases receive legal aid” through legislation.
The same day, Simon Jefferies, who at the time worked in the premier’s office, sent an email to his colleagues that read, “What the premier meant to say was ’If anyone needs support on legal aid, feel free to call my office. I will guarantee you that you will have access to the folks at Legal Aid Ontario.”
In the months that followed, people in need of legal assistance, and lawyers, wrote to Ford in search of legal aid for injured worker claims and criminal, refugee and family court matters. Ford deferred to the attorney general in a canned response, as HuffPost reported in August.
When deciding on how to handle the requests, Ford’s director of strategy, Ari Laskin, wrote on May 9, “I’m really struggling with this one to be honest.”
During question period Thursday, NDP MPP Gurratan Singh demanded clarification on what the premier meant by his promise.
“Which is it, Speaker: the empty promise that the premier made on radio that Ontarians will be guaranteed access to legal aid or what his staff have decided that the cuts (to the Legal Aid Ontario budget) will continue?”
Downey answered on behalf of Ford, skirting around the question to say the province is making the legal aid system “more reflective of the needs” of those who qualify.