Province is ‘directly messing with our ability to defend clients’: lawyers protest new Legal Aid ‘guilty plea certificates’

Ontario defence lawyers are being urged to reject a new measure, meant to address a growing backlog of criminal cases, that the Criminal Lawyers’ Association (CLA) says will create a “coercive dynamic” pushing accused people to plead guilty — even when they may be innocent or have a defence.The new plan, administered by Legal Aid Ontario, would pay lawyers a flat rate of up to $1,055 only to resolve an unrepresented client’s court matter — either with the withdrawal of charges, diversion, a peace bond or a guilty plea — at case management courts throughout the province. The step is meant to help lower the backlog of criminal cases piling up in the Ontario Court of Justice as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.Lawyers who accept the new Legal Aid certificates, with a flat fee equivalent to a few hours of work, will also be allowed to set the client’s case up for trial, but can’t represent them at trial. According to the CLA, this leaves a lawyer who accepts the certificate with no route to argue a “not guilty” outcome.The arrangement both pushes unrepresented people to quickly plead guilty and exposes counsel to potential lawsuits and claims of ineffective legal assistance, the CLA said in an open letter to Attorney General Doug Downey and Lise Maisonneuve, chief justice of the Ontario Court of Justice, saying the plan amounts to the introduction of “guilty plea certificates.”The province is “directly messing with our ability to defend clients,” CLA president John Struthers said Wednesday. “How do we convince the Crown to drop the charge when we have no threat whatsoever of going to trial and making them prove it?”He added: “To have a justice system that is not China, you have to have a route to ‘not guilty.’”The CLA’s position was echoed Wednesday by Ontario Crown Attorneys Association president Tony Loparco, who said that encouraging guilty pleas sullies the criminal justice system, especially “when you’re doing it because of cost and expediency.”In September, the Ontario Court of Justice announced it was establishing new case management courts throughout the province to address the “very large volume of cases” that have accumulated due to the pandemic. These new courts “will supplement and assist” the permanent case management courts already operating.Case management courts generally handle many of the largely administrative hearings that occur early in a criminal case before it heads to trial.Asked to respond to the CLA’s criticism, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General wrote in an email that the Legal Aid certificates are intended to help self-represented clients navigate the new system. “These certificates allow private counsel to assist in a manner similar to Duty Counsel on a limited basis to help an accused either resolve or navigate the matter toward a trial,” the spokesperson wrote. A spokesperson for the Ontario Court of Justice declined to comment.Several Ontario lawyers voiced their support for the CLA’s position on Wednesday.The certificates “represent yet another trap in the system designed to coerce people into pleading guilty. I cannot, in good conscience, be a part of that,” tweeted Toronto defence lawyer Alison Craig. “When Legal Aid will fund a guilty plea but not a trial, you know there is a problem. These courts and new certificates are designed to induce guilty pleas and grease the wheels of injustice,” Ottawa lawyer Michael Spratt wrote.Added Craig Bottomley, another defender: “If you’re going to sell a piece of your soul, it should be for more than $1000.” The CLA also protested what the certificate plan means for a Legal Aid system badly in need of funding. The CLA noted that the certificates are being offered to unrepresented individuals, regardless of their ability to pay for representation, in effect “subsidizing those few accused who can afford to hire counsel for trial,” while depleting scarce resources badly needed for vulnerable and indigent people.The province chopped Legal Aid’s funding by a third — $133 million — in 2019. While the government hasn’t said where the funding for the new certificates is coming from, it’s a “matter of logic” it will come from legal aid’s existing “meagre” coffers, the CLA states in its open letter. “It is telling that the government has chosen to provide funding to coerce guilty pleas for those that may be able to afford counsel but no additional funding for trials for those in financial need in the already badly underfunded Legal Aid system,” the letter reads.The province says it has taken other measures to address the court backlog, such as directing prosecutors to make “principled decisions” on whether to pursue prosecutions, according to a government memo published earlier this month.“Prosecutors must take steps to reduce the number of cases ... to ensure that priority is given to the prosecution of serious offences,” that Oct. 7 directive reads.Loparco, the president of the Crown attorneys association, said Wednes

Province is ‘directly messing with our ability to defend clients’: lawyers protest new Legal Aid ‘guilty plea certificates’

Ontario defence lawyers are being urged to reject a new measure, meant to address a growing backlog of criminal cases, that the Criminal Lawyers’ Association (CLA) says will create a “coercive dynamic” pushing accused people to plead guilty — even when they may be innocent or have a defence.

The new plan, administered by Legal Aid Ontario, would pay lawyers a flat rate of up to $1,055 only to resolve an unrepresented client’s court matter — either with the withdrawal of charges, diversion, a peace bond or a guilty plea — at case management courts throughout the province. The step is meant to help lower the backlog of criminal cases piling up in the Ontario Court of Justice as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawyers who accept the new Legal Aid certificates, with a flat fee equivalent to a few hours of work, will also be allowed to set the client’s case up for trial, but can’t represent them at trial. According to the CLA, this leaves a lawyer who accepts the certificate with no route to argue a “not guilty” outcome.

The arrangement both pushes unrepresented people to quickly plead guilty and exposes counsel to potential lawsuits and claims of ineffective legal assistance, the CLA said in an open letter to Attorney General Doug Downey and Lise Maisonneuve, chief justice of the Ontario Court of Justice, saying the plan amounts to the introduction of “guilty plea certificates.”

The province is “directly messing with our ability to defend clients,” CLA president John Struthers said Wednesday. “How do we convince the Crown to drop the charge when we have no threat whatsoever of going to trial and making them prove it?”

He added: “To have a justice system that is not China, you have to have a route to ‘not guilty.’”

The CLA’s position was echoed Wednesday by Ontario Crown Attorneys Association president Tony Loparco, who said that encouraging guilty pleas sullies the criminal justice system, especially “when you’re doing it because of cost and expediency.”

In September, the Ontario Court of Justice announced it was establishing new case management courts throughout the province to address the “very large volume of cases” that have accumulated due to the pandemic. These new courts “will supplement and assist” the permanent case management courts already operating.

Case management courts generally handle many of the largely administrative hearings that occur early in a criminal case before it heads to trial.

Asked to respond to the CLA’s criticism, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General wrote in an email that the Legal Aid certificates are intended to help self-represented clients navigate the new system. “These certificates allow private counsel to assist in a manner similar to Duty Counsel on a limited basis to help an accused either resolve or navigate the matter toward a trial,” the spokesperson wrote.

A spokesperson for the Ontario Court of Justice declined to comment.

Several Ontario lawyers voiced their support for the CLA’s position on Wednesday.

The certificates “represent yet another trap in the system designed to coerce people into pleading guilty. I cannot, in good conscience, be a part of that,” tweeted Toronto defence lawyer Alison Craig.

“When Legal Aid will fund a guilty plea but not a trial, you know there is a problem. These courts and new certificates are designed to induce guilty pleas and grease the wheels of injustice,” Ottawa lawyer Michael Spratt wrote.

Added Craig Bottomley, another defender: “If you’re going to sell a piece of your soul, it should be for more than $1000.”

The CLA also protested what the certificate plan means for a Legal Aid system badly in need of funding. The CLA noted that the certificates are being offered to unrepresented individuals, regardless of their ability to pay for representation, in effect “subsidizing those few accused who can afford to hire counsel for trial,” while depleting scarce resources badly needed for vulnerable and indigent people.

The province chopped Legal Aid’s funding by a third — $133 million — in 2019. While the government hasn’t said where the funding for the new certificates is coming from, it’s a “matter of logic” it will come from legal aid’s existing “meagre” coffers, the CLA states in its open letter.

“It is telling that the government has chosen to provide funding to coerce guilty pleas for those that may be able to afford counsel but no additional funding for trials for those in financial need in the already badly underfunded Legal Aid system,” the letter reads.

The province says it has taken other measures to address the court backlog, such as directing prosecutors to make “principled decisions” on whether to pursue prosecutions, according to a government memo published earlier this month.

“Prosecutors must take steps to reduce the number of cases ... to ensure that priority is given to the prosecution of serious offences,” that Oct. 7 directive reads.

Loparco, the president of the Crown attorneys association, said Wednesday that directive has created its own problems by creating a “rush to dump cases at all costs without a public airing of the merits by either the Crown or the defence.”

Agreeing with the CLA’s Struthers, Loparco said the best and fairest way to tackle the pandemic backlog is to boost funding for Legal Aid, so that “people can properly defend themselves and not be coerced into guilty pleas.”

Betsy Powell is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and courts for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @powellbetsy

Source : Toronto Star More   

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Ontario will double fines and order takeovers at nursing homes that break new rules

Nursing homes breaking the rules would see maximum fines doubled and the worst performers could face temporary takeovers under long-awaited legislation proposed Thursday in the wake of a pandemic that saw almost 4,000 vulnerable residents die. The bill, called the Fixing Long-Term Care Act, follows angry and anguished calls from families of loved ones in long-term care and government watchdogs for reforms and repairs to a system Premier Doug Ford admits is “broken” from years of neglect and weaknesses laid bare by COVID-19. Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips said this is a “watershed moment” for long-term care in Ontario, where more than 15,000 residents living in close quarters and thousands more nursing home workers caught COVID, with about a dozen staff deaths. “This, of course, is a highly emotional issue,” he told the Star’s editorial board, acknowledging there will be “skepticism” as to whether the reforms will bring the improvements and enforcement necessary.“As my mother would have said, the proof will be in the pudding.”The legislation, if passed, would grant the government powers to appoint supervisors for troubled homes — as the province now does with dysfunctional school boards and hospitals. “In any system there’s going to be some bad actors, and we will, as required, make sure that those actors feel the full force of these rules,” Phillips added.“We expect quality of care and quality of life to be the focus.”Maximum fines double to $200,000 for individuals and $500,000 for corporations on a first offence and to $400,000 and $1 million for second offences.Members of boards running for-profit nursing homes could be on the hook with maximum fines of $200,000 and $400,000 on first and second offences, with lower maximum fines of $4,000 for not-for-profit homes.The higher fines are intended to get the attention of for-profit operators amid a push from some opposition parties and activists for them to be phased out of the system after several for-profit homes such as Orchard Villa in Pickering experienced severe outbreaks and high death tolls from COVID. Ford called in Canadian Armed Forces medical teams to assist at the hardest-hit homes, where staffing levels dropped as low as 20 per cent because of illness and absenteeism. A military report later exposed horrible living conditions and poor care, such as residents force-fed to the point of choking, or malnourished and dehydrated.“We have to have real financial teeth,” Phillips said, calling the penalties “an effective tool to correct organizations that are not fulfilling their obligations.”Among other things, the bill would enshrine in law Ford’s promise to provide four hours of daily hands-on care to nursing home residents daily by 2025 and sets interim targets, double the number of inspectors with new powers to lay charges on the spot, mandate a properly trained infection prevention and control lead for every home, require every home to improve palliative care and ban anyone convicted of an offence under the new law from working, volunteering or sitting on the board of any nursing home. Palliative care is an important component because one-third of nursing home residents die every year in normal circumstance, said Phillips, who, as minister, could also hear appeals of licencing decisions made by the ministry. A government source told the Star this means a minister of long-term care could overrule the ministry, most likely to deny a licence.The legislation would replace the existing Long-Term Care Home Act passed in 2007 in a previous attempt at reform by Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government.Phillips is introducing the bill as long-term care homes continue to grapple with staffing shortages and the government scrambles to get more personal support workers and nurses in the pipeline to meet the four-hours-of-care standard, up from an average of under three hours today.The government has almost promised 30,000 new long-term care beds by 2028, with thousands already in development. But that development will also fuel the need for more nursing home workers. Health Minister Christine Elliott said Thursday that a taxpayer-funded top up of $3 hourly for 50,000 personal support workers in nursing homes will be extended to next March 31 to help attract and retain PSWs who perform the bulk of care for residents in nursing homes, such as toileting, bathing, grooming, dressing and feeding.The same top-up is being provided to PSWs in home care and those in services for children, community and social services. Hospital PSWs will continue to get an extra $2 hourly. Critics have been calling on the government to make the increases permanent to provide a sense of certainty instead of a series of temporary extensions. New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath has promised to bump PSW wages by $5 hourly if elected premier next June 2. In other pandemic news, the province is lifting “capacity limits for outdoor organized public events” such as Santa Claus parades and Rem

Ontario will double fines and order takeovers at nursing homes that break new rules

Nursing homes breaking the rules would see maximum fines doubled and the worst performers could face temporary takeovers under long-awaited legislation proposed Thursday in the wake of a pandemic that saw almost 4,000 vulnerable residents die.

The bill, called the Fixing Long-Term Care Act, follows angry and anguished calls from families of loved ones in long-term care and government watchdogs for reforms and repairs to a system Premier Doug Ford admits is “broken” from years of neglect and weaknesses laid bare by COVID-19.

Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips said this is a “watershed moment” for long-term care in Ontario, where more than 15,000 residents living in close quarters and thousands more nursing home workers caught COVID, with about a dozen staff deaths.

“This, of course, is a highly emotional issue,” he told the Star’s editorial board, acknowledging there will be “skepticism” as to whether the reforms will bring the improvements and enforcement necessary.

“As my mother would have said, the proof will be in the pudding.”

The legislation, if passed, would grant the government powers to appoint supervisors for troubled homes — as the province now does with dysfunctional school boards and hospitals.

“In any system there’s going to be some bad actors, and we will, as required, make sure that those actors feel the full force of these rules,” Phillips added.

“We expect quality of care and quality of life to be the focus.”

Maximum fines double to $200,000 for individuals and $500,000 for corporations on a first offence and to $400,000 and $1 million for second offences.

Members of boards running for-profit nursing homes could be on the hook with maximum fines of $200,000 and $400,000 on first and second offences, with lower maximum fines of $4,000 for not-for-profit homes.

The higher fines are intended to get the attention of for-profit operators amid a push from some opposition parties and activists for them to be phased out of the system after several for-profit homes such as Orchard Villa in Pickering experienced severe outbreaks and high death tolls from COVID.

Ford called in Canadian Armed Forces medical teams to assist at the hardest-hit homes, where staffing levels dropped as low as 20 per cent because of illness and absenteeism. A military report later exposed horrible living conditions and poor care, such as residents force-fed to the point of choking, or malnourished and dehydrated.

“We have to have real financial teeth,” Phillips said, calling the penalties “an effective tool to correct organizations that are not fulfilling their obligations.”

Among other things, the bill would enshrine in law Ford’s promise to provide four hours of daily hands-on care to nursing home residents daily by 2025 and sets interim targets, double the number of inspectors with new powers to lay charges on the spot, mandate a properly trained infection prevention and control lead for every home, require every home to improve palliative care and ban anyone convicted of an offence under the new law from working, volunteering or sitting on the board of any nursing home.

Palliative care is an important component because one-third of nursing home residents die every year in normal circumstance, said Phillips, who, as minister, could also hear appeals of licencing decisions made by the ministry.

A government source told the Star this means a minister of long-term care could overrule the ministry, most likely to deny a licence.

The legislation would replace the existing Long-Term Care Home Act passed in 2007 in a previous attempt at reform by Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government.

Phillips is introducing the bill as long-term care homes continue to grapple with staffing shortages and the government scrambles to get more personal support workers and nurses in the pipeline to meet the four-hours-of-care standard, up from an average of under three hours today.

The government has almost promised 30,000 new long-term care beds by 2028, with thousands already in development. But that development will also fuel the need for more nursing home workers.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said Thursday that a taxpayer-funded top up of $3 hourly for 50,000 personal support workers in nursing homes will be extended to next March 31 to help attract and retain PSWs who perform the bulk of care for residents in nursing homes, such as toileting, bathing, grooming, dressing and feeding.

The same top-up is being provided to PSWs in home care and those in services for children, community and social services. Hospital PSWs will continue to get an extra $2 hourly.

Critics have been calling on the government to make the increases permanent to provide a sense of certainty instead of a series of temporary extensions. New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath has promised to bump PSW wages by $5 hourly if elected premier next June 2.

In other pandemic news, the province is lifting “capacity limits for outdoor organized public events” such as Santa Claus parades and Remembrance Day services.

But masks will be mandatory if physical distancing of two metres is not possible.

For all other outdoor social gatherings, there are still limits of 100 people.

Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1

Source : Toronto Star More   

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