Listening but only in two official languages [legal aid]

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Mon Jun 07 2010.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

Her loyalties pulled her in opposing directions.

As a bencher of the Law Society of Upper Canada, Avvy Go was proud that the leaders of her profession recognized the unmet need for legal services among lower-income Ontarians.

As director of the Metro Toronto Chinese and East Asian Legal Clinic, she was dismayed that its action plan, Listening to Ontarians, developed in partnership with Legal Aid Ontario and Pro Bono Law Ontario, was based solely on views of English- and French-speaking Ontarians.

Her loyalty to her clients won out. “What about people whose first language is not English or French?” she asked incredulously.

Fellow bencher Marion Boyd, former provincial attorney general, speaking for the committee that designed and supervised the project, said it was a matter of money. “We didn’t have sufficient resources this time,” she explained. “A more in-depth study will be needed.”

Lenny Abramowicz, executive director of the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario (there are 79), piped up. “This validates what those of us in the trenches see. The poorest and most disempowered clients are overlooked.”

Lorne Sossin, author of the report and vice-chair of Pro Bono Law Ontario, assured both questioners this was not the end of the research. Already, he said, follow-up studies are underway at the University of Toronto (where he teaches).

It was a good discussion for the Law Society to have — and for the judges, politicians and legal luminaries who had gathered for the report’s release last week to hear.

Neither Go nor Abramowicz questioned the value of the project or the motives of those leading it. They questioned the accuracy of the research.

No one denied the validity of their criticism. The steering committee said it was the best the legal community could do for now, not what needed to be done.

That, in many ways, mirrors the state of affordable justice in Ontario. Nationally, the province is a leader. It established the first legal aid program in the country in 1951. It still provides clients with more financial support than any other province. And it has a well-developed network of private lawyers who do pro bono work for clients who can’t afford to pay.

But half of lower-income Ontarians with non-criminal legal problems still don’t get the help they need. And those who do are often given a restricted range of choices that don’t meet their needs.

Progress has always come in fits and starts. The initial focus was criminal law, then family law was brought in and finally civil law (wrongful dismissal, eviction, personal injury, consumer debt and denial of government benefits).

In 1976, legal aid clinics were added to the plan to serve low-income people in their communities and ensure that vulnerable groups such as immigrants, tenants and seniors were not overlooked.

But since former premier Mike Harris slashed legal aid funding in the 1990s, the clinics have faced a succession of schemes to shut them down, chop their budgets or force them to rely on private funds.

Go and Abramowicz have been on the battle lines. They’ve seen the interests of their clients — the poorest and most vulnerable Ontarians — put at risk time after time.

They couldn’t remain silent when Listening to Ontarians excluded the voices of those who are already marginalized.

They were respectful. They gave the Law Society and its partners credit for making a serious effort to improve access to justice. They acknowledged their blueprint was a step forward.

It just wasn’t as big a step as they had hoped.

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