Lawyers kick in funding to help PBO centres

Ontario lawyers raised $150,000 in 10 days to fund Pro Bono Ontario, after the non-profit said it would not have enough money to run three legal help centres next year, despite holding meetings with multiple regulators over the past few months.

Lawyers kick in funding to help PBO centres
Brett Harrison says the bar must face the reality that the provincial and federal governments have not announced assistance for Pro Bono Ontario.

Ontario lawyers raised $150,000 in 10 days to fund Pro Bono Ontario, after the non-profit said it would not have enough money to run three legal help centres next year, despite holding meetings with multiple regulators over the past few months.

“If the government isn’t going to step up, we need to step up at the bar,” says Brett Harrison, a partner in the litigation group at McMillan LLP as well as the firm’s pro bono partner in the Toronto office.

On Nov. 5, Pro Bono Ontario said a shortage of $500,000 meant three legal help centres in Toronto and Ottawa would cease operations on Dec. 14.

That means ending operations at Law Help Centres, where lawyers volunteer at courthouses to help marginalized groups and unrepresented litigants navigate the justice system. Lawyers called on the Law Society of Ontario, the provincial Ministry of the Attorney General and the federal Minister of Justice to help with funding, but as of Nov. 15, the LSO and federal government had made no commitments to funding the non-profit organization.

The province of Ontario also explicitly said it would not make up the shortfall. In the meantime, lawyers organized efforts of their own to stop the closure of the centres, which are located in Ottawa and Toronto.

LSO senior communications advisor Susan Tonkin said in an emailed statement that the LSO was in contact with Pro Bono Ontario and “any updates will be provided when available.”

Earlier this month, the law society said there were no plans to alter the law society’s $50,000 annual contribution to Pro Bono Ontario as the law society had not received a request for additional funding from Pro Bono Ontario.

The office of Ontario Attorney General Caroline Mulroney said in an email that the ministry would continue its existing commitment to Pro Bono Ontario — some rent-free spaces at courthouses, which the ministry estimates are worth $580,000.

 Ian McLeod, a spokesman for the Department of Justice Canada, says provinces are responsible for managing their legal aid programs but that Pro Bono Ontario was “encouraged” to apply to the Justice Partnership and Innovation funding program.

Harrison, who is also treasurer of the Toronto Lawyers Association, says a group of organizations is planning to help Pro Bono Ontario with its discussions with the law society.

More than 1,110 people had signed an online petition calling on the province to ensure a “long-term, stable source of funding” that specifically supports the help centres as of Nov. 15. And the Ontario Bar Association confirmed to Law Times that it was planning a meeting to discuss pro bono services with several local groups.

One solution floated by some of Pro Bono Ontario’s supporters is a levy on LSO members, similar to those in other provinces, says Scott Maidment, a partner in the litigation group in the Toronto office of McMillan LLP.

“Lawyers have a special responsibility. And a levy is quite sensible, proper and fitting,” says Maidment, who is also vice president of The Advocates’ Society.

Jeremy Martin, an associate at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP in Toronto, says there has been pushback against the idea of a levy.

“There are members of our bar that already do extensive pro bono work,” Martin says. “It would be inequitable to ask even more from those lawyers . . .”

As of Nov. 15, Pro Bono Ontario had raised more than $150,000 in donations, says Lynn Burns, executive director of Pro Bono Ontario. That includes $50,000 each donated by McMillan LLP and Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, $10,000 donated by Clyde & Co Canada LLP, $5,000 from Lax O’Sullivan Lisus Gottlieb LLP and more than $30,000 through a page set up by the organization. Lawyer Quinn Ross also said that more than $11,000 had been raised through a GoFundMe page. But that’s still far short of the $500,000 needed for 2019 for the three centres.

— with files from Gabrielle Giroday

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