LAO responds to erroneous assumptions about the future delivery of clinic law services in Ontario
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
During a recent CBC Metro Morning radio interview, the executive director of the Association of Legal Clinics (ACLCO) created a number of incorrect impressions about the Clinic law services strategic direction paper Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) released on May 16, 2013.
The ACLCO representative asserted, for instance, that there are significant differences between the LAO paper and the ACLCO strategic plan released some time ago.
In fact, the ACLCO’s planning documents contemplate many of the same themes as those identified in LAO’s paper. For example: maximizing cooperation, fostering amalgamations and alternative clinic configurations, improving technologically oriented client service and ensuring the effectiveness of the community-based approach to clinic law. LAO believes there are other areas which share common ground, such as promoting transparency, governance and management excellence.
The ACLCO spokesperson either ignored or created false impressions about the following facts.
ACLCO statement: “(LAO’s strategic direction) seems to be one based on the premise that most of the clients can help themselves. It's a self-help type of premise, so someone would call in a 1-800 number and they would be given perhaps 10 minutes of summary advice, or they would be referred to a website and the hope is that they would be able to help themselves.”
LAO response: Quite the contrary, LAO wants to ensure a range of services to meet client needs. The LAO paper calls for consultation with clinics to define how this range of services can be achieved.
As the strategic direction paper pointed out, LAO does not plan to replace in-person services with online services. It merely says that technology can be utilized more effectively. The paper clearly states that clients could be "even better served if there were more points of client access available throughout the province. This could be accomplished by significantly increasing the number of potential satellite offices, using the telephone and the Internet more innovatively and expanding the use of legal workers or intermediaries."
ACLCO statement: “We were surprised to find out that Legal Aid Ontario went on its own path and has devised its own strategic direction for the future, and in the strategic direction, the document that you're talking about, they seem to be going in an entirely different direction.”
LAO response: LAO is the primary funder of Ontario’s 77 community legal clinics, and is responsible, by law, for providing appropriate oversight over them to improve access to justice for low-income people and provide greater value for taxpayers.
LAO has been discussing the transformation and modernization of the clinic system with the ACLCO and clinics since 2008. This, in fact, is the fourth paper LAO has shared with Ontario’s legal aid clinics on next steps to expand client service in the clinic law area.
This current strategic direction paper is a set of objectives. As in the past, LAO is committed to discussing how these objectives can be implemented to expand services.
Many of the most important institutional arrangements, policies and processes for clinics have not been updated in 20 years. Notwithstanding the system’s strengths and the considerable skills of the people within it, the system needs modernization to maximize client service. LAO’s analysis was positively influenced by the recent provincial strategic plan facilitated by the ACLCO. Many of the themes and specifics of LAO’s strategic direction and the ACLCO strategic plan are consistent. This suggests great potential to move forward and improve access to justice for low-income Ontarians.
The ACLCO plan does not, however, address improved integration with the rest of the legal aid system; improved intake; expanding the use of non-traditional service providers; and improving transparency and consistency with provincial government directives.
ACLCO statement in response to question about clinic closures: “There's 77 clinics across the province of Ontario; 13 in Toronto itself. Legal Aid Ontario hasn't announced particular numbers, although we have heard discussions of mergers and closures leading to perhaps 20 clinics at the end of the day. Located in some regional centres but with the majority of clients having to get served by that 1-800 number and being served in either downtown Toronto or who knows where.”
LAO’s response: LAO has no intention of closing clinics. LAO does believe that merging clinic administrative operations could free up valuable resources, but is not imposing mergers. LAO does not run clinics, and LAO cannot impose changes. Each clinic is an independent community-based corporation governed by its own board of directors. LAO does have the legislated responsibility to ensure that the money it provides for each aspect of its programming is spent wisely, in the interests of legal aid clients.
Several clinics have chosen, on their own, to merge, because they recognize that joining forces would better meet their clients’ legal needs. In Hamilton, for example, three local clinics recently merged into a new clinic with the capacity to serve a larger catchment area.
LAO will be setting up regional and local planning discussions with community agencies, clinics and other stakeholders, to determine what works best in specific areas.
The fact is, clinic structures and catchment areas need to be analyzed against their ability to meet current and future client needs, not historic catchment areas or funding formulas. One might be able to make the case, for instance, that a smaller number of larger clinics with greater capacity could result in more clients served, more strategic and effective use of resources, more innovation, and reduced administrative costs.
Statement attributed to ACLCO: “A new strategy aimed at transforming Legal Aid in Ontario may end up hurting the very clients it's designed to help... those changes could prevent the most vulnerable clients from actually accessing legal aid.”
LAO response: LAO is committed to expanding access, improving legal aid services, increasing the number of clients served and leveraging the impact of legal aid services across Ontario’s justice system.
At present, clinic funding is effectively based on a 1990s-era funding model and a 1990s analysis of population and/or legal needs. As a result, there are currently wide disparities in the amount of funding per low-income population across Ontario.
Many factors are involved in determining the best size and catchment area for a clinic. Rural and remote clinics, for example, face a number of challenges that are not present in downtown Toronto and vice versa. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Any new catchment areas or funding formulas have to be based on a sophisticated, current understanding of client needs.
ACLCO statement: “…In the recent provincial budget, the Attorney General John Gerretsen announced (an investment of) new money in legal aid and specifically in the community clinics system…It's almost as if Legal Aid Ontario didn't get the memo…”
LAO’s response: The provincial government made it clear that the $30 million is earmarked for “strengthening the capacity of Family Law Service Centres and other community and legal clinics across Ontario” and that LAO is to respond to evolving needs, and ensure services are sustainable.
LAO`s strategic direction paper outlines the key objectives and principles that will underpin how the future of clinic law services will be further developed to ensure the best possible client service in the most cost-effective ways.
The paper outlines four overriding objectives:
- expand access to justice and provide fair and equal access to clinic law services across the province
- provide a continuum of client-focussed, high-quality, cost-effective services, and promote innovation
- meet the highest standards of public administration in Ontario, including the highest standards of transparency and accountability
- provide more and better services in a more cost-effective way
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