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Legal clinics facing significant reform

|Written By Kendyl Sebesta

Ontario’s 77 community legal clinics are facing significant changes to the way they do business, a Legal Aid Ontario paper suggests.

‘After the increased funding, clinic lawyers are still earning close to what articling students make on Bay Street,’ says Lenny Abramowicz. Photo: Robin Kuniski

“In LAO’s view, no idea or proposal is off the table,” says LAO spokesman Kristian Justesen.

“It expects Ontario’s community law clinics to ask tough questions and make tough decisions about the basic assumptions, institutional arrangements, and practices that have shaped clinic law services in Ontario for decades.

The fundamental objective of the clinic law delivery system must be its ability to meet the needs of low-income clients and their communities.”

Released May 4, the LAO paper makes a number of suggestions on how clinics could improve their spending practices and notes the changing population demographics that it feels they should take into consideration and adapt to.

Among the potential changes are creating centralized services, increasing the role of paralegals in legal clinics, and decreasing expenses related to bricks and mortar. Options, it noted, include locating clinic service providers in other agencies and public spaces.

LAO prepared the discussion paper as part of its contribution to the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario’s strategic planning exercise, a process aiming to chart future directions for the system.

The paper calls on clinics to pay greater attention to changes in the province’s demographics. They include an aging population, growth in the numbers of working poor, a change in the geographic distribution of low-income Ontarians, and an increase in the number of aboriginal Ontarians.

“These demographics must play an important role in the future of Ontario’s community legal clinics,” says Justesen. “They are especially important considering most of the processes that have been in place at the clinics have been there since the mid-1990s.

It is our suggestion that a conversation needs to be had about how Ontario’s clinics can more accurately pair changes in demographics and technology with the evolving needs of the clinics’ clients.”

The paper shows while LAO’s budget for clinics has increased to nearly $70 million this year from $36 million in 1998-99, they’re not necessarily meeting client needs more quickly or efficiently.

“The growth in the number of clients served by the clinic law delivery system has been very modest despite significant recent investments.

“In other words, increases in funding have not demonstrably translated into much more access to justice or better client services. As discussed in the 2010 discussion paper on administrative savings, between 1999 and 2009, LAO increased clinic funding by 57 per cent.

Adjusted for inflation, this represents a 30-per-cent increase in funding while the number of assists during this period only increased 12 per cent.”

According to the paper, much of the new funding went to salaries and infrastructure rather than service expansions that would boost access to justice and technological improvements, such as web-based client services, that it says should be the clinics’ goal.

But Lenny Abramowicz, executive director of the legal clinics association, says while his organization appreciates the report’s suggestions, its findings missed the mark.

“They determined clinic dedication to access-to-justice initiatives based on a number of statistics that assigned assists to particular tasks,” says Abramowicz.

“So, say 15 minutes were spent giving summary advice to a client and then four years were spent winning a groundbreaking decision in the Supreme Court. Both would get a single assist toward their total.

If you use this type of system, it will bring down clinic averages. It’s a type of measurement tool that you would have seen used 20 years ago.”

As for using public funds to increase employee salaries and pay for infrastructure projects, Abramowicz says the majority of the money was part of  “catch-up compensation” given to the clinics by the provincial government several years ago.

“A large chunk of the money the report mentions went to catch-up compensation. Prior to increased government funding, there was a mass exodus of staff from the system who could no longer afford to support themselves on the compensation they were receiving.

After the increased funding, clinic lawyers are still earning close to what articling students make on Bay Street. So I can’t apologize for that. They have to be able to make a living, and the catch-up compensation helped several legal clinics across the province avoid being shut down.”

Abramowicz notes a large chunk of the money the report cited went to two specialty clinics dedicated to doing test cases that have the potential to have a significant impact on low-income Ontarians, particularly in regards to housing.

“If you look at those types of initiatives, then we know the numbers would be exponential,” he says. “The paper doesn’t seem to include these initiatives or others.

We’ve merged several clinics and have created a Knowledge Now program to address some of these concerns about access to justice and increasing efficiencies, but the paper doesn’t appear to address that.”

In another criticism, the paper suggested community clinics are lacking in transparency.

 “The clinic law delivery system is now a very large publicly funded program that receives significant amounts of public money, yet it is not clear that the funding and accountability mechanisms match the size and complexity of the system or the demands of modern public administration,” the paper noted.

At the same time, the paper found spending by the clinics varies significantly from region to region.

But Abramowicz says while the association is mindful of the funding clinics receive, the primary goal isn’t to save money.

“We are appreciative of the money we receive and we always intend to operate within the parameters of the funds we do receive, but our primary goal isn’t simply to make cuts,” he adds.

“It’s just not our ultimate goal. Our ultimate goal is to help the people who need help. To give an example, I don’t think it’s helpful to those people to replace desperately needed clinic resources in a community with a 1-800 number.

It’s just not the same as having a community clinic there with people who are passionate and willing to help our province’s most vulnerable. Sure, it could save money, but the client isn’t likely to receive the same quality of service.”

But Justesen says he hopes the paper will at least spur a dialogue between LAO, the legal clinics, justice participants, and the broader community.

“It’s a discussion paper, not a prescription, a starting point for a much larger discussion about transformative change for developing a robust clinic law delivery system that will meet the challenges of the 21st century,” he says.

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