Legal-Aid Clinics Dodge Closures
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Legal-Aid Clinics Dodge Closures

As legal aid across Ontario struggles to serve growing low-income populations, community clinics are under pressure to reform.

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In 1989, Josephine Grey and her three children were forced out of their home and into a shelter. Grey was being abused by her partner—her children’s father—and, with his name on the lease of the matrimonial home, she had no legal right to ask him to leave. Homeless for nine months, she sought legal aid to have her abusive partner kicked out so she and her children could return home safely. But her request violated the social housing policy at the time, and without the ability to hire a lawyer, there was little she could do. She could either choose to stay in an abusive home, or perpetually dwell in shelters with her children—two options Grey refused to accept.

Based on her extremely low income, Grey was eligible for legal representation through the legal-aid certificate program. She was matched with lawyer Patrick Casey, who helped take her case to Superior Court. Grey won her case, which set a new precedent allowing victims of domestic abuse to retain their home and have their abuser kicked out, regardless of who originally signed the lease.

“The system worked for me in many, many ways,” says Grey, who credits community legal aid with saving her life. Now, she’s an anti-poverty activist and the founding director of Low Income Families Together (LIFT).

“The system worked for me in many, many ways.”

But legal aid in Ontario is at a crossroads. A lack of funding and changing poverty demographics in the GTA have left large chunks of communities in need of legal aid, but unable to access it. If Grey faced the same legal conflict today that she did back in 1989, she doubts the system would provide the same support. “Forget it. I’d be on the street,” she says. “I would have lost my kids by now.”

Nearly a quarter of Toronto’s population lives in poverty, but only a fraction of those people are eligible for legal aid. A family of three, for example, is only eligible if their annual household income after tax is less than $32,860—about $4000 below the poverty line, and $40,000 less than the median household income in Toronto. To access a lawyer through the legal-aid certificate program, income eligibility drops to $22,577.

According to a 2011 Ontario Auditor General report [PDF]: “For at least the last decade, Ontario has spent more on legal-aid support per capita than any other province, even though it has one of the lowest income eligibility thresholds and issues fewer certificates entitling people to legal aid per capita than most other provinces.” And in its 2012 budget, the Ontario Government stated, “[I]f programs are not achieving the desired results and ensuring the best use of taxpayer dollars, they need to be transformed.”

The GTA Legal Clinic Transformation Project was “a heated, at times emotional process.”

Legal Aid Ontario (LAO), the primary funder for legal clinics across the province, has been under pressure to reform. Desperate for a funding boost from the province, LAO endorsed the GTA Legal Clinic Transformation Project. The project was initiated by Flemingdon Community Legal Services, and was then developed by six east-end clinics looking for more efficient ways to serve low-income people. The group proposed all clinics in the GTA consider restructuring their services, and LAO supported the idea. A steering committee made up of two staff from each clinic was formed, along with a smaller working group of clinic executive directors. Thus began what Marjorie Hilley, co-chair of the project and executive director of the Flemingdon clinic, describes as “a heated, at times emotional process.”

In August 2014, two months before the Ontario government announced a three-year, $100-million investment in legal aid, the working group released a “Vision Report” [PDF]. The report suggested ways to create “efficiencies” in the system, namely, replacing the 17 community clinics in the GTA with five prototyped facilities, each with 33 staff. In Toronto proper, the number of clinics would shrink from 14 to three.

The larger clinic model would be a huge improvement for clinics in the 905 area, which are even more under-resourced than those located in downtown Toronto. But most clinics were against the idea from the start. Even opposing clinics, however, weren’t prepared to alienate themselves from the process, or risk having LAO reduce funding for not cooperating.

“Our clinic didn’t really like what we were seeing, but we wanted to be involved in the process,” says Timothy Maxwell, community organizer with Kensington-Bellwoods Community Legal Services (KBCLS). “We registered some concerns around LAO’s philosophy and approach—but we said, ‘Yeah, we’re in.’ If you signed [on], your clinic would be funded, no question.”

“A lot of people don’t want to be putting their head out there to get knocked off.”

Maxwell worked for KBCLS from 1986 1o 1999. In July, Kensington-Bellwoods asked him to return to organize a campaign to stop the Vision Report. “A lot of people don’t want to be putting their head out there to get knocked off,” he says. “Whereas that’s my job.”

Maxwell sees “clinic consolidation” as part of a dangerous trend in legal aid across Ontario, where community outreach is sacrificed for casework. Closing individual cases has become increasingly more important than reforming deficient laws and regulations that cause casework to pile up in the first place.

“Legal Aid [Ontario] has this tunnel vision,” says Maxwell, cupping his hands around his eyes. “They’ve never really gotten the whole clinic mandate thing. And they resisted constantly.”

The mandate he’s referring to is community involvement in community legal clinics and their decision-making. Maxwell and other critics argue that client populations have been left out of the process. Josephine Grey, who’s highly involved on both sides of the legal-aid system, only learned about the Transformation Project in late September 2014. But according to Marjorie Hilley, discussions about clinic reform began in 2010.

Maxwell and Gary Newhouse, chair of KBCLS, initiated a Town Hall meeting to inform neighbourhoods about proposed changes to their clinics. They also asked client populations how, if at all, legal aid should be reformed.

Out of that process, two community groups emerged—Concerned Parkdale and the Keepers—that have helped reframe the transformation discussion.

“If you ask if this has been a democratic process, the answer is no.”

“Having a bottom-up process is essential,” says Oriel Varga, a recent law-school graduate and member of the Keepers. “Low-income people who use clinics should be at the forefront. They know what they need—they shouldn’t be an afterthought.”

But Varga says many legal-aid clients don’t even know their clinics were at risk of closing. “If you ask if this has been a democratic process, the answer is no.”

“They kept moving the target hoping to change opposition.”

Clinics were supposed to vote by the end of September on whether or not to implement the Transformation Project. This deadline was extended to November, then December. Meanwhile, opposition to the project was growing. “So they said, ‘Okay, let’s vote on it by the end of February,’” says Maxwell. “They kept moving the target, hoping to change opposition.”

The steering committee finally met on February 25, and the Transformation Project was rejected. Flemingdon was the only Toronto clinic that fully endorsed the “mega clinic” plan. While some clinics, including North Dufferin-Peel and York Region, supported the idea of larger facilities with more staff, they acknowledged this model may not work for downtown communities. “What clinics are saying is that one size doesn’t fit all,” says Marjorie Hilley—something clinics like Kensington-Bellwoods and Parkdale have been saying all along.

“It’s a very positive thing that we destroyed the notion of three clinics replacing 14 in Toronto,” says Maxwell. Meanwhile, poverty is still increasing all over Toronto, but the conversation around legal-aid reform has changed.

“Clinics have started talking about a new kind of transformation that is more community focused,” says Maxwell, “not a sweeping, catch-all transformation.”