Opposition to a proposal to replace 16 legal clinics in the Greater Toronto Area with three larger centres is gathering steam with local politicians expressing their concerns and a new group emerging to rally resistance to the idea.
As clinics across the Toronto area prepare for a vote on the proposal before the end of the year, opponents are ramping up resistance to a plan they say will push Toronto’s most marginalized people further to edge. Some of them formed a new group, Keep Neighbourhood Legal Clinics, following a recent public meeting at Toronto city hall.
“An idea that might resonate well with Torontonians is when has amalgamation ever served us well?” says Fathima Cader, a law lecturer at the University of Windsor and a former staff member at Parkdale Community Legal Services. “I think we’re at a point where we should be able to appreciate that local needs are best addressed through local resources.”
A steering committee, made up of representatives from 16 Greater Toronto Area clinics, promised an 18-per-cent increase in frontline staff if up to five larger organizations replaced the existing ones. The plan would redistribute resources more equally across the region, according to the steering committee.
But opponents of the plan, many of whom are from Kensington-Bellwoods Community Legal Services and the Parkdale clinic, say the increase in frontline staff would be the equivalent of adding only about one more employee at each of the existing organizations.
The Kensington-Bellwoods clinic’s board of directors has already voted to reject the proposal. While the Parkdale organization’s board hasn’t yet taken a position, some current and former staff members are vociferously resisting the closure of one of Toronto’s oldest legal clinics.
By closing the existing legal clinics, the steering committee says it wants to start with “a blank slate” and redistribute resources more equally across low-income neighbourhoods.
Opened in 1971, Parkdale’s legal clinic is now more than 40 years old.
“There is no such thing as a blank slate when you have that kind of history,” says Cader.
“More practically, what that means is denying the decades of community building and trust and relationship building that has come out of that time,” she continues. “The suggestion is that rather than actually continue to cultivate those relationships, to take strength from that input from communities, we’re going to pretend that doesn’t exist. We’re going to ignore it and block it out altogether.”
Noting some of her clients at the Parkdale clinic were sick or suicidal or had disabilities, Cader says many of them wouldn’t travel to a new location to speak to lawyers. Although the steering committee says there will be several access points across the city, details are missing on where they’ll be and who will do the intake work, according to Cader.
Doug Ewart, one of the founding student staff members at the Parkdale organization, says the proposed model of 30 staff members, including two receptionists and three support staff at each location, just doesn’t stand up to the real needs the clinics are going to have.
“I don’t know anybody who thinks two receptionists can handle one-third of Toronto,” he says. “The work isn’t going down . . . and yet at the moment what several receptionists are doing, they’re saying only two can do it.”
For his part, Jack De Klerk, the co-chairman of the steering committee for the clinic transformation project, says the opposition is coming from only a few clinics. He notes that in drawing up the proposal, the committee had to take into account underserved areas such as Scarborough.
“We’re talking also about redistributing the resources, and there are areas in Toronto that are, relatively speaking, very under resourced. For example . . .
Kensington-Bellwoods serves less than half the number of poor people per staff than Scarborough does,” he says. “If everyone is going to come up to Kensington-Bellwoods’ level [in terms of resources], we’d have to double staff everywhere,” he adds, noting it’s unlikely the government would fund such a plan.
As for receptionists and support staff, De Klerk says the average legal worker doesn’t use legal assistants.
But opposition politicians who represent Parkdale-High Park have waded into the issue and are supporting the opponents. Cheri DiNovo, the NDP MPP for Parkdale-High Park, says the proposal is in fact a cost-cutting scheme by the provincial government.
“I’ve heard the other side speaking about less bricks and mortar and more lawyers in the community, but the simple reality is — and they’re very aware of this — Legal Aid Ontario and every other ministry in the government for that matter has been asked to make cuts,” she says.
“Really, the agenda here from the provincial government’s point of view is cuts to legal aid,” she adds, suggesting the answer to underserved areas like Scarborough isn’t to take away resources from other neighbourhoods.
DiNovo says she has written to the attorney general of Ontario expressing her concerns about marginalized groups in Parkdale losing access to clinics.
NDP MPP Jagmeet Singh, his party’s critic for the attorney general, says he, too, is against the merger proposal.
“It’s a question of efficiency versus access, and we can’t balance in favour of efficiency at the traumatic cost of access. That’s what the problem is. This isn’t just a little bit of an access issue; this is a huge access issue. So there’s got to be another efficiency we can find . . . but it can’t be at the cost of making it inaccessible.”
De Klerk, however, says clients are already taking transit to get to the clinics and notes one of the three proposed mega clinics may well be in Parkdale. He says opponents of the proposal are “being disingenuous.”
“They’re not looking at what’s being proposed. They’re just saying, ‘Please leave us alone.’ They’re not thinking about people who are not being served.”
Ewart says it’s hard to understand why the steering committee chose to close down clinics when it could have tried to redistribute resources in other ways. If push comes to shove, Ewart says it may be possible to relocate some staff from the relatively well-resourced clinics to underserved areas, something he says is a better alternative to “destroying clinics.”
For more, see "Report outlines details for clinic mergers" and "A solid plan for clinic reform."