All lawyers who represent legal aid clients must belong to the panel(s) for the type(s) of law they practice. Panel standards help ensure that legal aid clients receive high-quality services.
This document explains Legal Aid Ontario’s (LAO) policy regarding refugee and immigration panel standards, panel standards conditions, and the role mentorship plays in the fulfillment of these conditions.
LAO developed and is implementing this policy, in consultation with the Refugee Lawyers Association.
LAO is mandated under the Legal Aid Services Act to ensure that our panel of refugee and immigration service providers is of the highest quality.
The majority of the refugee bar provide high quality service and have been found to meet panel standards.
Ontario’s refugees and immigrants—among the most vulnerable of LAO’s marginalized clients—deserve no less.
A LAO employee assigned to a lawyer who makes a panel standards application. The panel officer is responsible for processing panel standard applications, creating and monitoring panel conditions, and acting as liaison between the lawyer and LAO should the need arise.
Staff review committee
A LAO staff lawyer (or private bar lawyer on contract with LAO) with several years’ experience in refugee and immigration law, who reviews anonymized panel applications and makes recommendations to the director general based upon the resulting quality assessment. The director general decides if the lawyer meets the panel standards or is to be referred to the peer review committee for a more in-depth assessment.
Peer review committee
A group of three senior private bar lawyers (selected from several on the committee) who hold a meeting to review anonymized panel standards applications and accompanying materials referred by the staff review committee. The meeting is chaired by non-voting LAO senior counsel in refugee law. This committee recommends whether panel standards have been met, and if not, whether conditions, including mentorship, should be imposed.
Senior refugee law trainer
A LAO staff lawyer with extensive refugee law practice experience as well as demonstrated continuing legal education and training expertise. The senior refugee law trainer sets up mentorships and provides guidance to both mentor and mentee throughout mentorship undertakings.
Director general (DG)
The DG reviews the assessment of the applicant provided by the staff review committee, peer review committee and panel officer. The DG then makes a final decision on whether the applicant:
Mentee (also known as an applicant)
A lawyer who has been approved to the general and/or appellate panels conditionally, and has signed a mentorship agreement that outlines conditions required to meet refugee panel standards. Mentees work with mentors to gain the skills necessary to meet LAO’s refugee panel standards. Mentees include:
New calls (lawyers with fewer than two years of refugee law practice), who may lack the requisite experience to produce high-quality work without mentorship. They will usually be approved to the panel(s) conditionally, even if no quality issues are identified with their work.
In exceptional circumstances, new calls whose quality of work is identified as very high quality and who have significant refugee and immigration experience may be determined to meet panel standards without conditions.
Lawyers in transition from other areas of practice.
Experienced lawyers, including lawyers whose work, following evaluation under the staff review committee or both the staff review committee and peer review committee, raises quality concerns.
An experienced refugee lawyer who works with mentees (applicants) to help them meet the refugee panel standards conditions. Mentors must be:
All conditions are outlined on our list of potential conditions that may be required to ensure the delivery of high quality services to clients. The conditions may include a mentorship relationship between the applicant lawyer and a mentor.
Applicants who are determined to conditionally meet the standards following a panel standards assessment are generally expected to satisfactorily complete required conditions within six to 12 months.
LAO may extend or shorten this period, following consultation with the applicant and, where applicable, the mentor.
LAO’s conditions are tailored to the background and circumstances of each applicant, but some are standard. For example:
New calls are expected to watch the training modules prepared by LAO for this purpose. In some cases, depending on their previous experience, they may be required to attend a meeting with the senior refugee law trainer to be tested on their comprehension of the modules.
Lawyers with limited or no experience in the practice of refugee law will be required to observe their mentor conduct a refugee protection division (RPD) or judicial review (JR) hearing. In some circumstances, they may also be required to have their mentor attend to observe them conduct a hearing or as co-counsel.
At any time during the undertaking, the mentee may ask that LAO amend his/her conditions. The panel officer will assess this request.
The requested changes may or may not involve or otherwise impact the mentorship relationship. For example, the changes will not impact the mentorship relationship if the conditions relate to watching modules or taking courses.
If the requested changes do affect the mentorship agreement, the panel officer will consult the senior refugee law trainer, who will determine the appropriateness of the request, in consultation with the mentor.
In the event of a conflict or inability to come to an agreement about the request to amend the mentee’s conditions, the director general will be consulted for a final decision.
Mentees can work with a selected mentor as follows:
LAO’s second chair program provides hands-on training for junior lawyers and paid mentorship opportunities for senior lawyers working on LAO funded cases. Mentorship through the second chair program is only acceptable if the mentor does not practice in association with, nor is in an employment relationship with the mentee.
An LAO-approved in-firm mentor, who works at the same firm as the mentee; in this case, the mentor does not receive financial compensation for mentoring.
When a lawyer is assigned to work with a mentor through the second chair program, the panel officer will ask the senior refugee law trainer to set up the mentorship relationship for the lawyer/mentee.
The senior refugee law trainer will:
Lawyers may be mentors to other lawyers in the same firm, upon approval of LAO. Before approving an in-firm mentor, LAO considers whether the mentor:
When a lawyer is a new call or is transitioning to a refugee practice with limited or no prior experience in refugee law and is being hired as an associate, LAO will permit in-firm mentorship and will not require an LAO-funded mentor under the second chair program, subject to the caveats noted above.
If a lawyer’s staff review committee assessment indicates quality concerns with the mentee’s work indicating that the in-firm supervision the lawyer is getting is or may be inadequate, LAO will require a LAO-funded mentor through the second chair program. This may also be appropriate in other exceptional circumstances.
LAO has created the following documents to support lawyers in their mentorship relationship and to help them meet panel standards:
Once the mentorship is arranged, the mentee’s panel officer oversees the mentor/mentee relationship and monitors fulfillment of conditions as follows.
New calls and more experienced lawyers whose panel standards application has been assessed by the staff review committee have a preliminary meeting to consult with a panel officer.
The panel officer drafts an undertaking with conditions and then sends it to the mentee for review and comment.
Once a mentor has been selected, the senior refugee law trainer introduces the mentee and mentor by email. The panel officer then sends them the following documents:
The mentee and mentor must sign and return the undertaking to the mentee’s panel officer.
The mentee’s acceptance of the conditions acknowledges the consequence of a failure to comply as follows:
I understand that failure to comply with the conditions means that I do not meet the panel standards. Failure to comply may result in my removal from LAO’s Refugee and Immigration General/Appellate Panel.
All signed undertakings from across the province are kept in the refugee and immigration division of the GTA program office.
Mentors and mentees should contact their panel officer or senior refugee law trainer if they have any questions or concerns.
Once a file has been reviewed by a mentor, mentees are expected to fill in the mentee feedback form describing their experience with their mentors. For example: whether the mentor was available and whether the guidance was clear.
Mentors are responsible for participating in all aspects of file work, and for providing feedback to the mentee on a timely basis. If the mentor is working on refugee claims, for instance, mentors will review the BOC and documentary evidence, discuss the hearing strategy, and review oral or written submissions.
Mentors fill in the mentor feedback form for each file they work on with a mentee throughout the course of the mentorship, referring to the staff and peer review committee notes and, if appropriate, the general and appellate panel checklists.
If mentors are concerned with an aspect of the mentee’s practice, they should address the concern with the mentee and record the interaction on their feedback form. Sample concerns include: an interpreter has prepared the BOC and there has been minimal client-mentee contact.
Mentor and mentee feedback forms will be shared within mentorship pairs.
Mentors participating in the second chair program will not be compensated for work outside of the conditions.
Mentors and mentees are expected to set up a mutually agreeable schedule for mentor review of documents. To the extent possible, the schedule should provide mentors with adequate turnaround time—without need for late night or weekend work. Last-minute work is to be avoided, as it causes stress and can affect client service.
Mentees are responsible for meeting client deadlines and setting up a reasonable timeframe for the mentor to review documents and provide feedback. They are expected to let mentors know of deadlines, and provide as much advance notice as possible.
Observing a RPD or JR hearing is a common required condition, particularly for new calls. It requires applicants to attend, with their mentor, a pre-determined number of RPD and/or JR hearings—usually three—prior to conducting hearings on their own.
Mentees should observe their mentor’s RPD or JR hearings. They can observe other lawyers’ hearings if it is not possible to observe their mentor’s hearings—so long as the other lawyers are on the appropriate LAO panel (general or appellate) and the arrangement is approved by the mentee’s panel officer.
If a mentee has never conducted an RPD hearing, a condition may be included for his/her mentor to act as co-counsel in a defined number of hearings. This would need to be discussed and agreed upon in advance, and communicated to the Immigration and Refugee Board prior to the hearing. Advance notice, including a request for travel disbursement where required, should also be given to LAO.
Requiring mentors to review entire files, as would be necessary in the context of co-counsel, is resource-intensive and does not apply to all mentor relationships. Acting as co-counsel is not likely an appropriate condition for experienced lawyers.
Another condition that is often required with less experienced lawyers is for their mentor to attend the hearing to observe the mentee’s practice style. This condition will need agreement in advance and needs to be communicated to the client(s) and the Immigration and Refugee Board.
Because RPD hearings are recorded, it is possible to request a CD of the recording to provide feedback about the mentee’s conduct as an alternative to in-person observation.
Conditions may be imposed requiring the mentor to accompany the mentee to a JR hearing, in addition to reviewing drafts of the memorandum and affidavits prior to filing them. The appellate panel standards checklist sets out LAO’s expectations.
If there is a difference of opinion between mentor and mentee, either party should advise LAO by contacting the mentee’s panel officer.
If mentees seek advice or mentorship on a matter not covered by their conditions (for example, a detention review or sponsorship file), mentors can either assist the mentees or refer the mentees to someone who can help them.
LAO expects mentees to develop a broad network of contacts with whom they can work and seek assistance.
LAO can only compensate second-chair mentors for work on certificate cases that are part of the undertaking.
If the mentor cannot attend a hearing, the mentee should contact her/his panel officer to ask for another mentor to come.
If this is not possible and the original mentor can assist with all of the hearing preparation, the hearing observation condition can be fulfilled another time, provided client interests are not compromised.
Quarterly check-ins with panel officers are required. The panel officer will contact the mentor and mentee separately, by telephone or email, to inquire about:
The check-in also provides an opportunity for the mentee to comment on the process and raise any concerns about the mentor’s availability, clarity of feedback and any other performance issues.
The mentor can discuss whether to end the mentorship relationship under the following circumstances:
the mentor does not have concerns about the mentee’s work and
the mentor thinks the mentee has addressed the issues LAO has identified (in staff review committee or peer review committee notes) earlier than the time prescribed in the conditions and before each condition is fulfilled.
If work is progressing well but additional mentoring is deemed necessary (either because issues identified by the staff review committee or peer review committee have not all been addressed or there has not been enough work product to assess) a further check-in will be scheduled.
It may be necessary to set up a meeting for the panel officer, mentor and mentee, joined by the senior refugee law trainer where appropriate, to discuss issues related to the mentor/mentee relationship.
This may result in an amendment to the undertaking that includes a plan for resolution of the issues, signed by mentee and mentor, with a further check-in scheduled.
Quality issues have been identified or the mentee is not otherwise fulfilling the conditions set out in the undertaking.
A deadline and further check-in for compliance with conditions will be set by the panel officer, and the mentee will be advised that LAO may provide an offer to resign or remove them from the panel if conditions are not met.
The provision of high quality service to clients, along with safeguarding client interests, will be paramount.
The mentor identifies in the feedback form that the mentee’s work is of high quality and accords with the panel standards checklists. The panel officer ends the mentorship, in consultation with the senior refugee law trainer.
The panel officer arranges for a final review of two general panel files and two appellate panel files that the mentee randomly selects for submission to LAO.
A member of the staff review committee will complete this review of unmentored work as soon as possible and no later than six months after the mentorship has ended.
If the work reviewed meets panel standards, the director general will approve the lawyer to the panel(s) without conditions.
If the conditions have not been met, or the mentor or back-end staff review committee member determines that the work continues to fall short of meeting panel standards, the mentee will be given the opportunity to resign from the panel(s). Alternatively, the director general will decide whether to initiate panel removal proceedings, in consultation with the mentor, staff review committee member, panel officer and senior refugee law trainer.
In extenuating circumstances, including but not limited to illness, parental leave or external personal factors, an extension of the undertaking will be considered and/or further conditions will be imposed. LAO will determine case-by-case the duration of any extensions.