Pro Bono Ontario seeks volunteer lawyers amid rising demand for legal support

The organization needs at least 20 lawyers daily to staff the hotline fully: executive director

Pro Bono Ontario seeks volunteer lawyers amid rising demand for legal support
Lynn Burns is the founding executive director at Pro Bono Ontario

Pro bono Ontario is seeking more lawyer volunteers to provide legal aid to Ontarians. Executive director Lynn Burns says demand for assistance increased because of the pandemic. The pro bono hotline answered 26,455 calls in 2021, twice the number of answered calls before COVID.

Behind those calls are stories of personal hardship and suffering, Lynn says. “Ontarians lost their jobs, businesses, housing at alarming rates. They struggled with consumer protection issues. So, each hotline call answered was an important opportunity for people to tell their stories and get legal advice about the rights, options, and concrete steps they could take to address their legal needs.”

Lynn says in 2021, PBO missed about 20,683 calls outside its business hours and over 8,000 during lunch hours, making it clear that people with inflexible work schedules need friendlier hours.

“We always try to ask ourselves every year, do our services meet the needs of the public? What can we do to make our services more user-friendly? How can we serve more people and stay within our budget?”

The organization increased business hours from five and a half hours to eight hours a day and plans to recruit at least 1,000 volunteer lawyers to take calls and increase support before and during hotline shifts.

Pro Bono Ontario started the extended hotline hours on Monday, and Burns says it has already made an enormous difference. However, more volunteer lawyers are needed to staff the hotline fully. She says the organization seeks at least 20 lawyers daily to take a morning or afternoon shift.

“We broke our record with the highest number of calls we have ever taken in one day. We served 178 clients today [Monday], and we were doing between 100 and 125 calls a day.”

The organization will provide volunteers with procedural and substantive support during their shift and ensure it is a very manageable commitment for lawyers.

“We have over 500 knowledge articles that they can search, our staff support are online to help with all the technical issues, and we’re working on an orientation video that can take people thinking about volunteering through how the hotline and technology works.” She says the video should be ready in the next few weeks.

Many lawyers might be nervous about signing up or agreeing to take calls on the hotline, but Burns advises lawyers to pick up a shift.

“You can’t possibly imagine the difference you will make,” she says. “All the lawyers that volunteer say it is incredibly rewarding work and feel very supported by the PBO staff volunteering. That they can take calls from the comfort of their home or office seems to be a real plus.”

You can read more about the support Pro Bono Ontario provides for volunteers here.

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