Report touts clinic mergers

Legal Aid Ontario report on the future of clinic law suggests legal clinics will be larger and fewer in number in the years to come.

“Larger clinics could be better positioned to leverage technology and/or develop partnerships that actually expand client access to clinic law services,” the report states.

“LAO does not have a fixed view of how many larger clinics would be desirable. However, LAO believes that larger clinics can be responsive to local conditions and client needs if they are structured appropriately.”

Some of the work has already begun, according to Legal Aid Ontario. For example, three clinics in Hamilton, Ont., recently merged. Two of the clinics closed while the third became a larger organization covering a bigger area.

It’s an idea most legal clinics in Toronto, too, have already started to embrace, says Stewart Cruikshank, executive director at East Toronto Community Legal Services.

“I think that’s a good idea. In a larger office, you can get more important stuff done as opposed to a lot of administrative stuff. Not everybody agrees with that, but most people in the clinics realize that’s our limitation — it’s the scale of the clinics.”

The best way to redesign the clinic system is to imagine a blank slate and organize legal clinics based on an updated understanding of community needs, according to Cruikshank. Clinic borders date back years, he says.

“A lot has happened in Toronto since the ‘80s. Our population has really changed over the last 20 to 30 years and that’s become more exaggerated in the last 10 years. So there’s a concern that the resource isn’t being properly distributed. The current clinic borders don’t really reflect the need in the city of Toronto.”

Marjorie Hiley, executive director at Flemingdon Community Legal Services in Toronto, has worked in clinic law for 29 years and says there’s no denying the system needs an overhaul.

“Frankly, we’re at a crossroads now,” she says.

“We need to really be looking at being smarter with our scarce resources and that probably does mean having to consolidate so that we have bigger teams of workers that can deal with situations as they arise. So whether it will end up being a lot of bigger clinics, we’re in the process of determining that.”

The LAO report also discusses doing more with legal clinics.

“LAO and others need to commit to a multi-year effort to expand services, increase the number of clients served, leverage the impact of clinic law services across Ontario’s justice system, and do so with significantly increased cost-effectiveness,” the report states.

While the ideas the paper discusses are hard to dispute, the report is “short on details,” says Cruikshank. “It seems to be put together fairly quickly without a lot of consultation.”

While clinics aren’t against doing more, the concern is LAO will be asking them to take on more tasks without adequate funding, he says. The report talks about expanding services but doesn’t say much about how funding will change to accommodate that, he adds.

“Are they going to expect us to do areas of law we don’t traditionally do now or are there going to be areas of law we can’t handle with the current funding environment? The proof will be in the pudding. When they actually come out with the details, then we’ll know if they’re going to properly fund us, if they’re going to expect us to do areas of law we don’t do.”

Recent trends have triggered such concerns, says Cruikshank. LAO, he notes, has stopped issuing certificates for some areas of the law where it now expects clinics to fill the gap, such as Ontario Disability Support Program hearings and appeals.

“They kind of just unilaterally stopped doing that and said, ‘Well, clinics should be able to do it entirely.’ The same thing was happening in landlord and tenant. The concern is are they going to do that with other areas of law? Is that sort of a hidden agenda that we can’t see?”

Part of the future for clinic law, according to the LAO report, is greater provision of services through the Internet. “LAO believes that clients could be even better served if there were more points of client access available throughout the province,” the report states.

“This could be accomplished by significantly increasing the number of potential satellite offices, using telephone and the Internet more innovatively, and expanding the use of legal workers or intermediaries, especially in rural and remote areas.”

But as the clinic law system undergoes reform, it’s important to maintain community engagement, according to Hiley.

“I’m not a big fan of 1-800 numbers,” she says. “I think that a client service centre where you phone in and you speak to a client service rep has some validity for some sorts of problems and some level of the population, but it certainly would not suit, for instance, our clients who have mental health issues, newcomers who don’t know the cultural issues, et cetera.

“We have to as a clinic system look at structuring ourselves so that we maintain that one-on-one service for the most vulnerable and needy.”

LAO spokesman Kristian Justesen suggests there has to be a balance between Internet and phone-based services and in-person assistance.
“LAO agrees with the proposition that access to justice depends on more than just Internet services,” he said.

“That said, it is also true that the legal aid system can utilize technology more effectively.”

He added: “Ontario is a very large, diverse province with 77 community legal clinics. What promotes better services and innovation in one part of the province is not necessarily the best plan for other parts of the province.”

LAO will facilitate discussions among local and regional community agencies and clinics to determine what works best and where, says
Justesen.

For more, see "Legal clinics facing significant reform".

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