Lawyers reach out to those who can’t afford them
Published On Fri Jun 04 2010. By Carol Goar, Editorial Board
Now we know for sure. Only half of lower-income Ontarians facing non-criminal legal problems get the help they need. Even those who do get their day in court are often left with a tangle of unresolved issues flowing from the original dispute.
These are two of the findings of a study of Ontario’s unmet legal needs, released this week by former chief justice Roy McMurtry. It was a joint project of the Law Society of Upper Canada, Pro Bono Law Ontario and Legal Aid Ontario.
“We no longer have to rely on anecdotal evidence, opinion or uninformed commentary,” McMurtry told a roomful of judges, lawyers and politicians. “This report is a call to action.”
For at least a decade, the legal community has known a portion of the population was shut out of the justice system. But until now, no one was sure how many. And it was unclear whether most were excluded by the strict requirements for legal aid or excluded themselves because of lack of knowledge or fear of running up a huge legal bill.
So a project team chaired by McMurtry set out to quantify the problem, find out why people couldn’t get — or didn’t seek — legal advice and recommend ways to improve access to justice.
They began by commissioning a survey of 200,000 low- and middle-income Ontarians (incomes below $75,000) to find out how extensive the problem is, where the barriers lie and what kind of help people actually want. Environics conducted the research.
The results confirmed what legal aid workers and anti-poverty activists have long said: The problem is big, it is pervasive and it is life-disrupting.
One out of three lower-income Ontarians is grappling with a non-criminal legal problem (such as child custody, wrongful dismissal, personal bankruptcy, eviction or denial of benefits) at any given time. The poorer people are, the more complex their needs.
But there were a few surprises:
• A third of respondents had no interest in a lawyer. They wanted to work things out themselves, with legal advice.
• People living on less than $20,000 seldom had one legal problem. By the time they got help, it had escalated into a snarl of legal-financial-family woes.
Half of lower-income Ontarians facing legal problems managed to resolve them for less than $1,000.
With these findings in hand, McMurtry and the other members of the steering committee — former attorney general Marion Boyd; Legal Aid Ontario chair John McCamus; and professor and vice-chair of Pro Bono Law Ontario Lorne Sossin — drafted a plan to make justice more accessible and affordable.
First, they urged the legal community to rethink its conventional assumptions. The old model of service delivery — a lawyer representing a client — is often ill-suited to the needs of lower-income Ontarians.
Second, they urged Legal Aid Ontario to make better use of taxpayers’ money. Handing clients certificates to hire a lawyer is needlessly expensive when people want help in navigating the legal maze, a source of reliable information and advice about how to stay out of court.
Third, they urged law firms to “unbundle” their services, allowing modest-income individuals to buy what they can afford.
Finally, they called for a shift in thinking. Stand-alone legal remedies don’t really solve people’s problems, they pointed out. Lawyers need to work in concert with social service providers, health-care professionals and community workers.
There were gaps and missing voices in the report. It painted a rosier picture than the reality front-line workers see.
But it gave lawyers a plan to serve those who can’t afford their fees. It gave researchers a platform on which to build. And it gave the province a strong prod to do better.
< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/818892–goar-lawyers-reach-out-to-those-who-can-t-afford-them >