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Legal Lemon-Aid

April 8, 2010 permalink

In the past we have observed that parents who represent themselves in court without a lawyer often get better outcomes than those who rely on legal aid. Now the Toronto Sun exposes the incompetence of Ontario's legal aid lawyers.



Where’s my lawyer!: McLaughlin

Shoddy Legal Aid attorneys finally being exposed, but clients suffer

So the pot finally boiled over and one of our legal aid lawyers got caught providing less than shoddy service to his clients.

It finally bubbled over last month when a judge took lawyer Arman Hoque to task for continuously failing to show up in court, leaving his clients standing abandoned at the front of the court looking bewildered.

But this isn’t the first time trouble has been brewing in the courts with lawyers who are paid by Legal Aid Ontario.

The matter was finally brought to light recently when Hoque went way over the top — not only by failing to show up in court for his clients over the past year, but even going as far as setting trial dates through his law clerk without ever meeting the client or once looking at the client’s file.

One client, raging angry after missing days and days of work after showing up for court with no lawyer, stormed out of court this week with no recourse.

So far several judges have loudly scolded Hoque in court, calling his behaviour “notorious,” saying he has left clients “twisting in the wind” and twice threatening him with contempt charges.

But at least two judges have noted that in their 30-year careers they have never, ever, admonished a lawyer this way.

Why not?

If Legal Aid Ontario is not going to monitor the behaviour of the lawyers it pays, we need our judges to stiffen up and speak out.

Last year, Legal Aid Ontario charged the taxpayers $362 million for its annual budget. That figure will climb after the province recently increased rates following a boycott by legal aid lawyers. The new pay structure allows for a gradual 40% increase in the present top rate of $97 an hour to $135 an hour for standard criminal cases. (The hourly rate gets higher for big cases such as murder trials.)

While many lawyers who take on legal aid clients have great passion for their clients and put in far more hours than they are actually paid — there is a heaping handful of lawyers who simply rack up the client numbers and don’t do any work.

Everyone in the legal community knows who they are — unfortunately, it’s the clients who have no idea.

These are the lawyers who paint a greenish slimy hue over the legal aid system, tainting all of the good lawyers who work so hard.

Last week I met a mother with a babe in her arms, weeping on the front steps of the courthouse, because it was her fifth day in a row she has attended bail court to try to bail out her husband. But every single day the case was adjourned and hubby was kept in jail because the legal aid lawyer didn’t show up.

“I keep calling (a lawyer we won’t name) but he doesn’t even answer his phone,” she said with tears streaming down her cheeks. “I don’t know what to do. I need my husband to come home. If he doesn’t get out he will lose his job.”

This young woman is just one of a string of clients left destitute at the doors of the court house.

Dozens and dozens of these people charged with minor offences are ready and willing to plead guilty but don’t even know how to go about doing that. Yet their cases are adjourned in court not once, not twice, but dozens of times, by their legal aid lawyers who don’t show up or haven’t bothered to look at the case file yet.

Questions about what kind of screening and monitoring Legal Aid Ontario does on its lawyers and how much they have billed for various clients go unanswered. Legal Aid Ontario, much like the Children’s Aid Society, is a secretive shop.

In fact, in the past month, despite several calls and e-mails, the only time Legal Aid responded to my questions was to send a letter to the editor noting I had made an error by using the term “appointed lawyer” rather than “approved lawyer.”

As one Crown attorney said to a judge in this matter, “this behaviour brings disrepute on the entire administration of justice.”

Yes, it’s got to be up to our judges to grab the joystick on this one and order these lawyers to act responsibly.

It’s time.

— McLaughlin is a reporter who covers Simcoe County for the Sun

Source: Toronto Sun