Premier Doug Ford’s “guarantee” of legal aid to Ontarians who called his office forced his top staff to correct his statement and raised concerns about potential political interference, according to newly revealed internal documents.
The documents show how senior officials struggled to deal with the fallout from Ford’s off-the-cuff remarks to a Toronto radio station, after his government’s April budget slashed funding to Legal Aid Ontario by $133 million.
The documents also reveal that people who actually contacted Ford about their legal aid problems were shuffled off to the attorney general.
“If anyone needs support on legal aid, feel free to call my office,” Ford told AM640 Global News Radio during an impromptu phone call April 22.
“I will guarantee you that you will have legal aid.”
In an email the next morning, a senior official in the office of the attorney general threw cold water on Ford’s guarantee and flagged the comments as raising “potential criticism of political interference” in decisions about legal aid.
Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) is independent of the government, wrote communications and issue management official Jean-Philippe Chartré.
“To ensure that there is no government interference in decisions regarding which cases receive legal aid … LAO has the sole discretion to make that decision in each individual case based on its merits,” Chartré wrote to senior staff in the offices of the premier and the attorney general at the time, Caroline Mulroney.
Further emails that morning reveal how the premier’s senior advisers aimed to walk back Ford’s comment, without admitting on the record that Ford was wrong.
“What the Premier meant to say was ‘If anyone needs support on legal aid, feel free to call my office. I will guarantee you that you will have access to the folks at legal aid Ontario,'” wrote Ford’s director of issues management, Cody Welton, (emphasis his) in an email to the premier’s three top communications officials.
Ford’s deputy chief of staff in charge of communications, Amin Massoudi, approved that message to be delivered to journalists only “on background,” meaning on the statement be attributed to unnamed government sources.
Those emails were triggered by questions to Ford’s staff from the Toronto Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief, Robert Benzie.
Ottawa lawyer Michael Spratt obtained the documents through a freedom of information request and posted them to his blog this week.
The documents include more than 20 emails and letters to Ford from people referencing his legal aid promise and asking for help. Each one received a boilerplate response from the premier: “As the issue you raised falls in the area of responsibility of the Honourable Caroline Mulroney, Attorney General, I’ve forwarded your email to her.”
However, Ford’s new Attorney General Doug Downey acknowledges that he cannot step in and force LAO to provide legal aid to anyone.
“Although we may not get involved in an individual case, it helps us evaluate the system and know how we may need to help the system evolve and change,” Downey said in an interview at the legislature on Wednesday.
Asked whether Ford’s guarantee still stands, Downey deflected the question.
“I encourage Ontarians to phone and reach out to our government in any way possible,” he said. “When we hear from people who aren’t able to access the service, that’s valuable to us because we know what direction we need to move.”
Opposition parties are criticizing Ford for making a guarantee that he could not keep.
“The premier was once again making stuff up, talking out of his hat, and it put the government into a scramble,” said Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
Mike Schreiner, leader of the provincial Green Party, said: “It’s clear that the premier doesn’t really understand how government works nor does he understand how his cuts to legal aid are denying people access to justice.”
Michael Spratt, the lawyer who obtained the documents, said it’s wrong for Ford to leave people with the impression he can guarantee them legal aid.
“It’s extremely troubling and shows a disengenous and callous attitude,” said Spratt in a phone interview Wednesday.
“After promising to help these individuals, the premier’s response is essentially, ‘It’s not my problem, talk to the attorney general,’ knowing full well that the attorney general’s response is, ‘We’re unable to do anything, take up your problems with Legal Aid Ontario.'”
Ford’s press secretary said Wednesday she does not know how many people have called or emailed the premier’s office since April to ask for legal aid help.