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Clinic reform at critical point

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|Written By Tali Folkins

A proposal to consolidate Toronto-area legal aid clinics into a handful of organizations appears to be dead in the water as Legal Aid Ontario has reportedly withdrawn financial support and proponents consider alternatives for reorganizing the sector.

‘There’s still some interest within the transformation project in saying maybe some clinics might merge or something like that,’ says Gary Newhouse. Photo: Robin Kuniski

“In terms of the actual [notion that] 14 clinics in Toronto will close [and] three or four or five will be created out of that, that is definitely off the table,” says Gary Newhouse, a member of the plan’s steering committee who’s also chairman of the board at one of the clinics that opposed the merger proposal, Kensington-Bellwoods Community Legal Services.

“So now at the moment, over the last few months as the steering committee has continued to meet, the issue is can the transformation project go forward and how exactly and is legal aid still willing to fund it?”

Jack De Klerk, one of the clinic lawyers heading the working group, declined to comment last week on the state of the transformation plan. LAO, meanwhile, wouldn’t confirm it had withdrawn its funding for the transformation project. “We have had constructive and positive discussions with the GTA transformation project co-leads,” says LAO spokeswoman Genevieve Oger, noting the organization is looking at “options and next steps.”

Last September, the working group charged with developing the transformation plan released a report proposing to replace 16 of the area’s legal clinics with five or six larger organizations. Instead of an average staff of eight, the new facilities would have some 33 employees and offer services not currently available in some areas.

The plan initially seemed to meet with some approval from several clinics, although at least one, Kensington-Bellwoods, was highly critical. The working group then asked for written responses from the clinics and by the time they were all in earlier this year, all but three opposed the idea of consolidation.

“The message was pretty clear from the clinics that basically clinic closures were not something that was going to be acceptable,” says Newhouse. “The bottom line was we don’t like the mega-clinic model but we do like other aspects of the report.”

In the spring, the steering committee — which unlike the working group contains representatives from all of the clinics in the Greater Toronto Area — drew up a sort of preliminary work plan along with the leaders of the project. The work plan featured four main guidelines the authors wanted to see in any future transformation proposal: community engagement; access issues and partnerships; expanding areas of law, closing service gaps and ensuring consistent services across the region; and optimizing systems and improving operational efficiency.

The work plan makes no explicit mention of consolidating clinics.

Subcommittees were then to work out the details of these four guidelines with the intention of approving the complete plan at a steering committee meeting in June. But consensus failed to materialize at the June meeting, according to Newhouse.

The transformation project, an effort funded by LAO, has found itself at a critical point, he says, because the merger proposal was originally its centrepiece with more funding  on hold pending the development of a plan that would be acceptable to the clinics. LAO, however,  has now reportedly withdrawn funding for the transormation project due to a lack of agreement among the clinics.

“There was a reference in some of the [steering committee] discussions last week to it being at a crossroads right now and that it seems to be a fractured process and maybe it can’t go forward,” says Newhouse. LAO wanted the working group to come up with a plan that would be acceptable to the clinics by the end of May, says Newhouse, but with that date come and gone, the steering committee found itself under significant time pressure.

But what happens now is a bit of a mystery, he says, as those involved in the project work to figure out the next steps with the next meeting of the steering committee slated for July 14. The end of the transformation plan, however, doesn’t have to mean the end of efforts to reform the delivery of services, he says. “There’s still some interest within the transformation project in saying maybe some clinics might merge or something like that,” says Newhouse.

Alternatively, it’s possible that groups of clinics may end up developing their own plans and approach LAO about them independently, he says. “I think it’s fair to say that the clinics in Toronto are very, very actively talking amongst themselves about shared initiatives that would be transformative, so to say.”

Meanwhile, reform efforts are continuing to roll out across Ontario, says Lenny Abramowicz, executive director of the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario. The process began a couple of years ago, partly under the impetus of the provincial government. “The provincial government was saying, ‘We want to invest, we want to know it’s not just the same old, same old and people are thinking about better and best ways to do things,’ and we were happy to take up that challenge,” he says.

Some of the activity has involved consolidation in the case of some Ottawa clinics. Others, however, have decided against that option. “The vast majority of clinics have decided that’s not the route to go and are looking at other options,” he says.

Some have decided to locate together to share some resources such as reception and back-office functions while remaining independent of each other. Others, including a northern clinic that serves a catchment area the size of France, have been looking at how they can better serve and reach out to remote communities, he says.   

For more, see "Report outlines details for clinic mergers," "New group forms to oppose Toronto legal clinic mergers," and "Legal clinics facing significant reform."

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