Legal Aid Ontario’s funding shortages impact immigration, tenancy and disability law, too: Reasonable Doubt

My colleagues Brian Eberdt and James.

My colleagues Brian Eberdt and James Stengel have recently written about Legal Aid Ontario’s critical role in criminal and family law, highlighting the gaps and challenges lawyers and clients face because of funding shortages. I will pick up on these themes today as I address Legal Aid’s role in refugee and immigration, tenancy, disability, employment, social assistance and consumer law matters.

Legal Aid funds three refugee law clinics: one in Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa. The clinics provide an array of services, from assistance with various refugee applications to representation at hearings. People living outside of those cities should contact Legal Aid Ontario to see what kind of assistance they can receive from the clinics or other sources of help.

Immigration matters are generally funded through the certificate program, which is the same system as criminal and family matters. If Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) staff determine that your matter has merit and you are financially eligible, they may provide you with a certificate for a lawyer of your choice to work a specific number of hours on your case. Problems can arise when trying to find a lawyer who will accept a legal aid certificate. Often, the number of hours required to competently do the work on your case surpasses the amount for which LAO will pay. Those in smaller communities might struggle to find an immigration lawyer nearby – immigration law is very specific, and general practitioners are not fully trained in this area.

Many more immigration matters are funded by LAO, primarily those at the most critical level: applications to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, detention reviews for immigration reasons and deportation, to name a few. Unfortunately, many who are seeking help to sponsor family members have no free legal assistance through Legal Aid Ontario. Legal Aid will be able to offer information and advice on further options if you call and they cannot assist with your matter.

Legal Aid Ontario funds Community Legal Clinics (CLCs) across the province, which I wrote about in detail here. CLCs provide information, advice, and representation to tenants on housing issues, ODSP and Ontario Works problems, CPP and EI matters, and some clinics do WSIB work, contract advice and consumer protection matters, and representation before the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board for victims of violent crimes in Ontario. Specialty Community Legal Clinics provide legal services to specific linguistic communities (such as the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic), or specialize in a specific area of law (eg., the Action Centre for Tenants of Ontario, Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, Justice for Children and Youth. LAO also funds tenant duty counsel who are present when and wherever the Landlord and Tenant Board sits.

Overall, Legal Aid Ontario provides an impressive array of publicly funded services to Ontarians living well below the poverty live. However, as my colleague Brian stated, LAO is far from perfect. The ever-present struggle is funding. To qualify for services at Community Legal Clinics like the one where I work, single people must have a gross annual income of less than $18,818. For a Family, Criminal or Immigration certificate, that amount is $12,863. Those amounts are after three consecutive years of increases to the financial eligibility guidelines to increase the number of people who qualify for Legal Aid. For more people to qualify for free legal assistance, LAO’s budget needs to be increased by the provincial government. The provincial budget season is upon us now, so if you agree that Legal Aid provides crucial legal services to our province’s poorest and that more people should qualify financially, contact your local MPP and let them know. It’s imperative to maintain and improve these necessary legal services.

Rachael Lake is a staff lawyer with Waterloo Region Community Legal Services, practising in the areas of Disability and Employment Insurance Law. Reasonable Doubt appears on Mondays. 

A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Waterloo Region Community Legal Services. | @nowtoronto

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