Funding pro bono legal services a no-brainer for Ford government

Posted on in Inclusion Delivery System

TheStar.com – Opinion/Contributors
Nov. 13, 2018.   By

Consider these scenarios:

  • The elderly man victimized by a consumer scam.
  • The woman struggling with consumer debt facing the threat of foreclosure on her home.
  • The single mother wrongly terminated from her minimum-wage job.

These are the types of people who will be left out in the cold if three legal centres providing vital services for the people of Ontario — specifically, for its most vulnerable people — shutter their doors as planned next month.

However, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government — the self-styled “first ever government for the people” — has the power to keep them open.

While governments often face truly difficult decisions, for many reasons this one is a no-brainer.

Over the past decade, Pro Bono Ontario has operated three Law Help Centres in Toronto and Ottawa. These centres are a hub for low-income Ontarians to receive advice in person and by phone on a wide range of legal matters, from small claims court disputes to human rights complaints to employment law issues.

Hundreds of lawyers volunteer to staff the centres for free, providing summary advice to almost 20,000 people each year about the merits of their cases and how to navigate often-confusing court procedures.

The landscape against which these services are provided is important. Increasingly, the justice system has become less accessible to low-income Canadians, who simply cannot afford the cost of legal advice. They are left with no choice but to represent themselves, doing their best to determine whether they have a valid legal claim or defence, in which forum it should be argued, what steps need to be taken to advance it, and how to frame it persuasively.

It is in this context that the Law Help Centres have played a vital role in facilitating access to justice, helping low-income Ontarians navigate a complex legal system. At the same time, Pro Bono Ontario has struggled to find stable funding to cover the Centres’ modest annual administrative expenses of roughly $500,000 — or about $25 per client served.

Over the past few years, one-time grants have served as temporary stopgaps to keep the centres’ doors open. Though time-limited, these grants created tremendous value.

A return on investment study demonstrated that Pro Bono Ontario’s services provide a $10 return for every dollar invested and have saved the provincial government over $3 million per year by increasing the efficiency of courts and helping steer claims of “doubtful merit” away from the legal system.

Now, however, the well has run dry and Ontarians are on the brink of losing a hub for legal advice that has benefitted thousands across the province.

The Ford government can stop this. Given its self-identified priorities and its professed commitment to be “for the people,” there are compelling reasons to do so. In terms of delivering value for money — which Premier Ford has adopted as a mantra — it is hard to identify a service with a better business case for funding.

Without proactive investment, the significant costs savings the Law Help Centres create for the province (which currently provides no core funding for their operations) will evaporate.

Moreover, as someone who has consistently branded himself as the defender of “the little guy,” Ford has a pragmatic opportunity here to fund services that provide support for that demographic.

These benefits, which align with the ethos of the Ford government, are enhanced by a simple fact: helping those in need in the midst of an increasing access-to-justice crisis is simply the right thing to do.

For years, Ontario’s lawyers have done just that, stepping up to provide pro bono services through the Law Help Centres and giving advice to some of the most marginalized people in our province.

If the Ford government is truly “for the people” it must now step in to provide the stable funding needed to ensure lawyers can continue to do so.

Pam Hrick is a lawyer with Stockwoods LLP and a volunteer with Pro Bono Ontario’s Law Help Centre at 393 University Avenue in Toronto. She is currently on leave from her practice to pursue a Master of Laws at New York University.

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2018/11/13/funding-pro-bono-legal-services-a-no-brainer-for-ford-government.html

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