Law firms say they’re ready as the deadline for new customer service standards under the Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act approaches.
“We’ve created our own policy and are undertaking training with a provider,” says Sunil Kapur, a partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP. “It’s actually very easy.
I can’t imagine anyone saying that it’s onerous. The legislation itself also speaks in very broad terms, which gives us the flexibility to create our policies and procedures accordingly.”
Companies, including law firms, have until Jan. 1, 2012, to implement the new standards. They require them to create policies, plans, and procedures to make sure services are easily accessible to people with disabilities.
“I think it’s directed at a very good goal,” says Kapur. “And I think the early compliance dates should be easy.”
Under the new regulation, firms with 20 or more employees, including support staff, paralegals, law clerks, and associates, must create documents detailing their policies and have copies available for anyone who wants to see them.
Those documents must include guidelines for accessing legal services in a way that respects the dignity and independence of people with disabilities; ensures they can access the same legal services as others; and provides the same opportunities and benefits as other clients.
To do this, firms can take a variety of approaches, including increasing accessibility for clients with personal oxygen tanks and hearing aids or by providing text telephone lines.
Firms must also update their communications by, for example, using plain language in documents to be more responsive to people with learning disabilities or offering audio formats of printed materials, according to guidelines on the act issued by the Law Society of Upper Canada.
Under the new standards, firms must ensure that clients requiring help from support people can enter and stay with them during legal consultations and services. In addition, clients who require service dogs must also be able to have them accompany them.
If service animals aren’t allowed in certain areas, firms will have to come up with alternatives, the guidelines state.
“It’s interesting in the sense that it’s asking members of the Ontario bar to think about how lawyers interact with people that have disabilities,” says Ellen Swan, an associate at Davis LLP.
“When you’re working with a client who is using a support person, for example, just who is a part of that client-lawyer relationship must be made clear, which may overlap into other areas as well.”
According to the new standards, firms must undertake training activities, including providing instructions on how to communicate with people with various types of disabilities and how to interact with those who use assistive devices.
“The training itself really doesn’t take very long and is very easy,” says Kapur. “It basically involves learning from slides and because we use our own provider, it only costs about $10 a person.”
At the same time, firms must make it easy for people with disabilities to provide feedback about their services. Those with 20 or more employees have to provide a written document allowing for feedback to anyone who makes a request.
How law firms set up that feedback process is up to them but they must file a publicly available accessibility report annually with the director appointed under the act. They can be subject to investigations and administrative penalties if they don’t comply.
Firms with less than 20 employees are exempt from filing. While they don’t have to present certain written documentation on their policies, they must abide by all other accessibility standards by Jan. 1.
In the meantime, both the law society and the Ministry of Community and Social Services have created guidelines and sample policies to help area firms abide by the new regulation.
“The guide, which includes a model policy, is meant to provide a user-friendly and practical tool that is applicable to law firms and legal organizations,” said LSUC spokeswoman Susan Tonkin.
“Its goal is to assist law firms in understanding their legal obligations under the accessibility standards for customer service regulation and develop their own internal policies.”
Tonkin added that in general, the new standards will require law firms to consider people’s disability when communicating with them; allow assistive devices in the workplace; permit service animals; welcome support people; let clients know when accessible services aren’t available; and invite them to provide feedback.
So far, major law firms say they’re embracing the standards.
“At this time, we’re looking to apply the policy standards we’ve created here nationally,” says Christina Hall, a partner at Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP. “The policy ensures persons with disabilities have fair and equal access to services and are treated with respect and dignity . . . and there’s no reason why that policy can’t apply to our national firms.”
Hall adds that FMC has already completed the policy and procedural guidelines required under the new standards and plans on putting more long-term provisions into effect in the future.
“We’re also in the process of an e-module training program with lawyers, staff, and paraprofessionals that allows them to complete training at times that are convenient for them,” she says. “It’s all going very well so far.”
For more information, see "Ontario businesses worried about new accessibility rules."