On behalf of the Mental Health Legal Committee, I wish to express the Committee’s wholehearted endorsement of Anita Szigeti and her candidacy for Law Society Bencher. This is also my personal endorsement.
Anita is brilliant, insightful and witty. She is also tireless in her commitment to the central justice-related issue facing our society today: access to justice.
As a founding member and Chair of the Mental Health Legal Committee from 1997 to 2006, Anita spoke up for mentally-disordered Ontarians facing discrimination, detention, forced treatment and worse. She also became the public voice of the diligent and thoughtful group of private practice and clinic-based lawyers serving these clients; a group that seldom had an opportunity to come up for air. Now numbering nearly 100 lawyers and community legal workers, the Committee owes its existence and a large part of its credibility to Anita.
The Mental Health Legal Committee’s cooperative relationship with Legal Aid Ontario was forged in these years. Many important test cases and instances of successful systemic advocacy were the result. Panel standards were established raising the level of advocacy before the Consent and Capacity Board. Anita was also the Chair of Legal Aid’s Mental Health Advisory Committee and gave her time generously.
While the MHLC and other service providers have stayed true to the goals of access to justice and effective advocacy for the poor and vulnerable, somewhere along the way Legal Aid Ontario faltered. It relied upon highly variable Law Foundation funds to finance its operations. When this source of funding dried up, Legal Aid exacerbated the shortfall by moving resources away from the representation of individuals toward telephone and web-based information and referrals.
The effect of Legal Aid’s transformation has been to draw resources away from the poorest, most vulnerable Ontarians at the same time that the resources allocated to other branches of the justice system (i.e. police, prosecutors and prisons) have increased substantially. In a time of recession, as the need for services to the poor increased, the number of Legal Aid certificates issued to individuals dropped an astonishing 20% in a single year.
Legal Aid’s present direction threatens to dismantle the high-quality representation by certificate and clinic-based lawyers that has made Legal Aid Ontario a world leader. Within a generation, the stored capital of specialized legal expertise in broad areas of poverty law will be lost. It is no consolation that all other Ontarians will be able to access the same generic telephone and web-based services provided by Legal Aid Ontario. This is not the purpose for which Legal Aid was established.
To ensure its independence and accountability, the Legal Aid Services Act, 1998 provides that five of Legal Aid Ontario’s eleven Board members are to be selected from nominees put forward by the Law Society. This is the where a change in direction has to start. The Board presently has four vacancies. While up to three Board members may be benchers, only one (a paralegal bencher) is presently sitting.
Access to justice is the most pressing issue in the 2011 bencher election. A properly independent and accountable Legal Aid Ontario is the cornerstone of ensuring and enhancing that access. I have every confidence that Anita Szigeti is the person to make this happen.
Please fight for Legal Aid. Please vote for Anita Szigeti.