Pro bono advocates call for more co-ordination to address access to justice

Walking into Law Help Ontario’s office at 393 University Ave. in Toronto is much like a visit to an emergency room. There are forms to fill out and a waiting area to sit in before seeing a so-called triage paralegal who assesses visitors’ needs to determine whether or not to refer them to one of the lawyers busily flipping through files in the back of the room.

On an average day, about 30 people visit the office seeking relief for their legal pains. But as the legal industry braces for change of all kinds, many have expressed doubt that pro bono services will remain a viable remedy for a growing number of people who can’t afford counsel.

As part of discussions on revolutionizing Canada’s legal system, lawyers and judges have talked about the need to look beyond pro bono law to respond to urgent needs related to access to justice. During a recent speech at the Law Society of Upper Canada, Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell urged lawyers to be innovative in addressing the issue.

Pro bono is a piece, but I don’t think pro bono, again, is a full answer to this,” he said.

Cromwell, chairman of the National Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters, talked instead about coming up with new responses to the access problem.

“On the court side of it, we have a huge issue, I think, of ineffective and unduly complex process that drives costs up out of proportion to what’s at stake; and on the legal services side, we perhaps have not yet explored fully all the models that might help people get meaningful access to services in a more cost-effective way,” he said.

In a recent report, a working group of the committee chaired by Cromwell discussed “a clear role for pro bono work” in advancing access to justice but said it recognizes “the limits of the profession’s ability to address all needs.”

At Pro Bono Law Ontario, staff caution against underestimating the role of volunteerism when it comes to designing new ways of tackling access issues. Pro bono services are “bursting at the seams,” they say, suggesting that option will remain a crucial and indispensible part of solving the access to justice quagmire.

Pro Bono Law Ontario is in favour of being innovative and addressing access to justice issues in different ways, says executive director Lynn Burns. But the focus on innovation shouldn’t detract from the need to not only maintain but also strengthen Ontario’s pro bono law services, she says.

“Everybody always says pro bono is not the answer but it’s a part of the solution,” says Burns.

“We are really lucky in Ontario to have such an amazing response from the private bar,” she adds.

One of the many counsel on the organization’s volunteer roster is Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP associate Aislinn Reid.

“I volunteer at PBLO because I believe that lawyers have a professional responsibility to contribute to their community and that making legal advice available to those who otherwise would not be able to afford it is a valuable contribution,” she says.

Instead of doubting the role of pro bono, Burns says governments and the legal profession should focus on creating a more seamless co-ordination between pro bono services and other ways of addressing access to justice.

“We’re all sort of working in silos now,” Burns says of the various legal service providers.

When it comes to making the system more efficient, the first step “would be for the various sectors to come together in a spirit of complete collaboration and decide what are the important components of a full access system,” says Matt Cohen, director of litigation projects at Pro Bono Law Ontario.

Cohen notes the committee chaired by Cromwell is an example of a body that has the skills and authority to create what he calls “a full access checklist.” Such a checklist for a full access system would define the role of each of the current silos and help strengthen the overall network, he adds.

In its report, the committee’s access to legal services working group also mentioned the need for a more robust pro bono structure. “A significant amount of pro bono and low bono work is done on an informal basis and there is no way of quantifying the extent of this contribution,” the report states. “However, to maximize the benefits of pro bono work to clients, a structured framework is necessary.”

Pro bono work isn’t just an expense for the profession, according to Burns and Cohen. When law firms send lawyers to do pro bono work, they’re also thinking about professional development and corporate responsibility, which is all the more reason to strengthen it rather than dismiss it as an inadequate solution, they say.

Reid knows what they mean. “The days I spend as PBLO duty counsel have given me perspective on legal practice and on life generally that is very different than my typical day, and I think that is important,” she says.

To read the first instalment in the series, see "Judge calls on colleagues to embrace trials." For more on the committee reports, see "Broad roadmaps for reform."

This is the second in Law Times’ summer series on access to justice. The series will consider the issues raised in each of the working group reports prepared by the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters. 

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