Legal aid is a government program that helps people with low income receive legal representation and advice. Although publicly funded, Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) is an independent, non-profit corporation providing legal aid services in Ontario.
Legal aid is only available to individuals with certain types of legal problems. Depending on your situation, LAO may cover all or some of your legal costs. A list of what is covered by Lao is set out below.
Who is Eligible to qualify for Legal Aid?
Legal aid is available for those who do not have the means to pay for their own legal fees. In order to obtain legal aid assistance, you will need to qualify for it.
To qualify for legal aid in Ontario, you must have little or no money left after you pay for basic necessities like food and housing. Individuals on social assistance almost always qualify for legal aid. While not very common, you may be eligible for legal aid even if you have some money in the bank or even if you own a home.
Obtaining a Legal Aid Certificate
A Legal Aid Certificate is a voucher that guarantees a private practice lawyer, who accepts your case, will get paid for providing you with representation for a certain number of hours. In order to determine your financial eligibility for the certificate program, you need to take a financial eligibility test.
To qualify for a Legal Aid Certificate, you must have a legal problem that Legal Aid covers, and your annual gross family income and family size must meet the following requirements (at present):
|Number of Family Members||How much money does your family earn in a year?||For Domestic Abuse cases|
Applying for Legal Aid
To apply for legal aid services, you must first contact Legal Aid Ontario. Applications can be done over the phone or in-person at a Legal Aid Office.
If you apply over the phone, you should have documents related to your legal situation (for example, court orders, separation agreements, or a copy of the crown screening form for criminal charges) close by; in case you need to refer to them. You might also be asked to send in three or four copies of your most recent paystubs, if you are working. If you are receiving assistance from the Ontario Disability Support Program or Ontario Works, your social assistance status will be verified over the phone.
If you are applying for a Legal Aid Certificate in person, you should bring the following:
- Some form of identification, such as a Social Insurance card, Driver’s License, Health Card, or Permanent Resident Card;
- Any documents relating to your case, such as court orders, separation agreements, a copy of the Crown Screening for criminal charges, or a copy of any police summons, indictments or charges or any other documents related to your case;
- Proof of your current income if you have any, such as recent pay stubs, social assistance cheque stubs, Employment Insurance statements or T4 slips;
- An up-to-date bank book or bank statements;
- Proof of monthly expenses and bills, including rent receipts or mortgage payments, hydro and gas bills, car payment receipts, credit card statements and car insurance bills;
- If you own your home, the deed to your home; and
- Proof of any unusual expenses such as medical costs.
Matters Covered by Legal Aid
Legal Aid Ontario covers a range of legal issues. If a person qualifies financially, the types of cases that may be covered by legal aid include: certain criminal charges, issues regarding family law matters (including domestic violence), immigration and refugee matters, landlord and tenant matters, and some civil cases and final appeals.
For family law matters, the issues which may be covered under a legal aid certificate include:
- obtaining or changing custody of children;
- setting up, increasing or decreasing child or spousal support payments;
- help if a partner denies access to children;
- getting access to see children or to make a major change to access arrangements that have already been made;
- stopping a partner from selling or destroying the other partner’s property; and
- negotiating ownership of things like RRSPs or pensions that could provide income.
Legal Aid Certificates do not pay for a divorce except in rare situations.
Domestic Violence Services
Legal Aid also has special family law services to help individuals experiencing domestic violence. A free emergency two-hour consultation is available, regardless of the person’s immigration status in Canada.
After Applying: Next Steps
About two weeks after applying, Legal Aid will send you written notice of its decision. If your application is accepted, you will either receive a Legal Aid Certificate, or receive a Legal Aid Certificate under the condition that you sign a Contribution Agreement, in which you agree to repay some, or all of your legal aid costs.
Once you receive your Certificate, you can take it to any lawyer who accepts legal aid and who agrees to represent you. Not all lawyers accept legal aid certificates. You can either ask if the lawyer accepts legal aid certificates during or before a consultation, or you can us the “lawyer search” tool on the Legal Aid website to search for a lawyer.
If your application is refused, and you are given the right to appeal, it will be stated on the refusal notice, together with information about where to send your appeal. If the decision was made by the district area Director, you must appeal to the local area Legal Aid Committee. Subsequent appeals will then be made to the provincial appeals department. If the decision you are appealing was made by the local area Legal Aid Committee, then you will appeal directly to the provincial appeals department. The decision of the Director of Appeals is final and there is no further right of appeal.
Once a Legal Aid certificate has been issued, it is valid for 3 years.
Nussbaum Law is a Toronto based law firm that exclusively practices family and divorce law