North American Pro Bono Organizations Experience Unprecedented Budget Cuts

Ontario’s budget for legal aid was slashed by 30 percent in 2019, which amounted to about $60-70 million. More recently, the legal aid budget was squeezed even more due to the coronavirus pandemic. Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) provides pro bono services and funds private lawyers in order to reduce impacts on marginalized minority individuals and populations when they find themselves in court without representation.

LAO Executive Director Jack de Klerk said, “The elimination of positions [within legal clinics] will be inevitable.”

LAO provided a number of overtime hours for associates over the past year as a result of the pandemic — a reality that has exhausted its budget even faster. Volunteer criminal law attorneys are in short supply, but the demand for them has only increased.

Many politicians disproportionately place blame on individual lawyers and law firms for failing to meet the rising calls to action, but fail to take responsibility for their own program cuts or reducing budgets across the board.

Professor Trevor Farrow of Osgoode Hall Law School explains, “Having access to justice primarily means having available options to prevent, address problems…This requires more than traditional courts and lawyers.”

Farrow believes the burden of action therefore falls to judges and legislators too. 

Pro bono legal aid in the United States hasn’t fared much better over the past few years, which is mostly as a result of former President Trump’s proposed budget cuts, which targeted equal opportunity justice organizations. 

The federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) responded to those proposals with a pleading letter: “For over four decades, the LSC has provided essential financial support for nonprofit legal aid programs throughout the nation, which serve close to two million low-income individuals annually. Its elimination would price law out of reach for those who need it most.”

Income inequality is the heart of the matter — and it’s a topic becoming more and more popular with left-leaning populations who wish to help the impoverished.