Responses to recent media enquiries
Response to questions about Lawyer Services and Payments
June 3, 2010
Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) provided information to the Toronto Star in response to questions about LAO’s Lawyer Services and Payments department. Some of these responses appeared in the June 20, 2010 article “Legal Aid owes Toronto firm $500,000, lawyer says.”
Legal Aid Ontario’s response:
Over the last three years, LAO has been increasing the use of technology to help improve our processes and reduce our administrative costs, invest savings in direct client services, and expand client access.
New client services and access points include a simplified online application process, Legal Aid Ontario in the Courthouse and a Client Service Centre to provide enhanced telephone access. As well, reorganization along regional lines by restructuring the traditional model of 51 separate offices into nine larger districts has created better accountability, cost-effective administration, and continuing responsiveness to local needs.
As part of our modernization, we are also improving technology and online services for lawyers so it is easier for them to do business with LAO. Please take the opportunity to visit our Hot Bytes archives section on the LAO website to read about these initiatives.
Clients and service providers will be better served by the new administrative and service models. But the changes are significant, and have involved changes in staffing complement and in roles and responsibilities among LAO staff. The Lawyer Services and Payments department is undergoing organizational change along with the rest of LAO and as a result, the payment of a small proportion of accounts is delayed. This is a temporary situation that we are working to resolve.
Do you agree that you are behind in payments to Hicks Adams? Are you “way behind” in payments to Derstine-Penman, as stated to me by Dirk Derstine?
Under the Legal Aid Services Act, LAO cannot discuss confidential matters involving individual clients or individual lawyers except with the individuals themselves. Lawyers’ accounts fall into this category of confidential matters.
Is it true that you are behind in payments to many criminal defence lawyers, as stated by the head of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, Paul Burstein? If the answer is yes … why is this so?
LAO pays 70 per cent of the accounts it receives within 21 days, and that is the current status of our payments to lawyers. If a lawyer asks LAO to exercise its discretion to pay an account that is billed above the tariff rate, those accounts are considered on a case-by-case basis, and decisions are made based on a careful review of the amounts billed and the reasons for the higher amounts. If a lawyer is billing LAO for a major case, such as a murder or a “guns and gangs” case, those accounts are matched against the budget set for the case, and processed for payment when that review is completed.
Do they have anything to do with staff layoffs at LAO and a consequent inability to manage the workload?
We’re experiencing delays in the processing of a small proportion of accounts because staff are being reoriented and retrained, technical systems are being recalibrated and administrative processes reorganized.
The delays are a temporary situation that we are working to resolve, and do not affect 70 per cent of the accounts received by LAO. We expect to begin meeting our service level commitments to lawyers again by September. Lawyers have been informed of the delays in payment through the Better Billing Bulletin (B3) e-newsletter, email notifications and postings on the website, as well as the Legal Aid Online bulletin board.
It’s LAO’s policy to expedite payments to lawyers facing financial hardship if they contact us with such a request.
Do payment delays have anything to do with the strike by lawyers several months ago?
There is no connection with the strike by the Criminal Lawyers’ Association that ended several months ago.
Are there senior positions unfilled at LAO? If so, does that have any bearing on the question?
There are no senior positions unfilled at LAO.
Does LAO have a morale problem due to layoffs, which is affecting its ability to make timely payments?
LAO pays 70 per cent of lawyer accounts within 21 days. We take great pride in the professionalism and dedication of all our staff.
Why are block payments not being reimbursed at this point?
Modifications to LAO’s automated billing processes are being undertaken for the implementation of block fees. We want to make sure the system is working at peak efficiency before we roll it out to panel members. Here’s a link to a story posted for lawyers on the website several weeks ago. We also emailed this information to panel lawyers.
The transition to block fees raises significant and complex issues for LAO, criminal legal aid, the criminal bar and legal aid clients. As a result, the first phase of block fees is a pilot or “learning” phase that is intended to help LAO, the bar, and others better understand the implications of block fees for clients, the bar, LAO, and the criminal justice system generally.
The anticipated new date for accepting block fee accounts on Legal Aid Ontario’s billing portal Legal Aid Online is July 11, 2010.
Is your funding down, and is this affecting your ability to pay out?
Some sources of revenue have decreased, but others have increased. However, neither factor is affecting our ability to pay lawyers. It is a logistical issue, not a financial one.
In terms of funding, Legal Aid Ontario receives most of its money from the provincial government. Included in the province’s annual allocation are funds transferred from the Federal government to the Province in connection with criminal law, the Youth Criminal Justice Act, and other expenditures covered under a cost-sharing arrangement.
Here’s a link to a fact sheet on our website about how LAO is funded.
If your funding is down, is this to do with less money coming in from the Law Foundation?
Some sources of revenue have decreased, but others have increased. Provincial government funding is up, but Law Foundation of Ontario(LFO) revenues are expected to be lower than the last couple of years.
The LFO administers the interest earned on lawyers' trust fund balances and Legal Aid Ontario receives 75 per cent of this income. These revenues are highly dependant on two factors: the Bank of Canada overnight interest rate and real estate activity levels. The recent increase in the Bank of Canada rate is expected to have an upward impact on the funding LAO receives from the LFO.
As well, the province announced last fall it would provide an additional $150 million over four years to LAO. This money is being used to enhance client services and assist LAO’s service providers, including an increase to the tariff paid to lawyers and the implementation of block fees for specific types of cases.
LAO’s modernization strategy takes into consideration the requirement to always be prudent with public money, particularly at a time of economic restraint.
Legal Aid Ontario has phased out the old structure of legal aid application offices and moved to a model that provides new client access points that include a courthouse location, toll free legal aid phone services (1-800-668-8258 press 0 - even from a payphone – no coins required), and our enhanced Legal Aid Ontario website. LAO has introduced online tools that expedite the certificate acknowledgment process (which confirms a clients' status and authorizes lawyers doing work on behalf of legal aid clients to begin working on a case). This process is all done online, so that lawyers no longer have to contact or request confirmation from a legal aid office.
For more information
For more information please contact:
Acting Manager, Communications and Media Relations