LAO complaints policy
Published: September 11, 2019
Policy of guidelines and procedures for receiving and processing complaints about LAO staff and services
Last updated: February 2019
Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) created its complaints policy to make sure that:
- individuals know their right to make a complaint, and the procedures involved
- complaints are dealt with fairly and quickly. It does not matter how the complaint is made (verbally or in writing), or who makes it (the legal aid applicant or another person).
2. What is a complaint?
LAO is responsible for ensuring that a professional and conscientious approach is taken to managing a client’s file; that the file is managed on a timely basis; that good quality legal services are provided; and that staff follow procedures that are established for representation of the client. A complaint is an expression of dissatisfaction with a service provided by or with the policies of LAO. The Complaints Department accepts complaints by telephone, fax, email and through the Ethics Hotline. Complaints will also be accepted in person if an appointment is made in advance. LAO accepts anonymous complaints as well.
3. The importance of complaints to LAO
LAO considers complaints to be opportunities to evaluate how we are doing. They allow us to identify weak points in our policies and procedures so that they can be corrected. Complaints allow staff at LAO to see our organization through the eyes of the people who use or are affected by our services.
4. Who can file or make a complaint?
Any person can make a complaint, including current and former clients, lawyers, someone who has been refused a service or any other person who may be affected by the services LAO provides, including services from a community legal clinic, a student legal aid services society or an Aboriginal legal services corporation.
LAO will consider all complaints, though there are some that we do not have authority to handle alone. Although there is no complete list, examples of these include human rights issues and some employment concerns, which are handled by human resources (HR). Complainants (individuals who make a complaint to LAO) will be advised if their concerns are not in LAO’s Complaints Department area of responsibility.
Complaints from the Provincial Ombudsman should be directed to the Complaints Department.
Legal aid applicants must go through the appeals process, if a right to appeal exists, before they can make a complaint. This means LAO will not accept complaints about the refusal of legal aid assistance, contribution agreements, or other matters where the Legal Aid Services Act says applicants have the right to appeal, unless applicants complete the appeals process.
The LAO complaints process is not meant to provide an avenue for disputing the outcome of a formal appeal or reconsideration. In these cases, the complainant will be advised that no action will be taken beyond what was decided in the appeal or reconsideration.
5. Responsibilities of the Complaints Department
- Handle each complaint professionally, efficiently and fairly
- Keep the complainant informed of our progress
- Give the complainant reasons for all decisions
- Treat the complainant with respect
6. Responsibilities of the complainant
- Provide the Complaints Department with a clear idea of the problem in writing and the solution expected
- Disclose at the beginning all the relevant information
- Promptly provide new facts in writing and your decision to withdraw the complaint, if you decide to do so
- Cooperate with the Complaints Department
- Treat Complaints Department staff with respect
7. Types of complaints
7.1 Lawyer billing complaints
These complaints can originate from either the lawyer’s client, a contributor on behalf of the client, a subsequent lawyer acting on behalf of the client or a judgment debtor.
In most cases, the client in question is subject to a contribution agreement (or lien) with LAO.
The Complaints Department’s role in these matters is that of a facilitator for the Lawyer Services and Payments (LSP) Department. The Complaints Department will ensure that the client receives the lawyer’s detailed accounts for the certificate(s) in dispute. The client is then asked to review the accounts and provide their objections in writing, as well as their signed waiver and consent so the Complaints Department can send the objection letter to the lawyer in question.
The Complaints Department will then provide a copy of the client’s complaint to the lawyer so they can respond. Once the lawyer’s reply is received, the documents are referred to the LSP Department. A staff lawyer in the LSP Department will review the account(s) and provide the client with the outcome in writing. In some instances, where serious billing irregularities are identified, LSP will refer the matter to LAO’s Investigations Department.
7.2 Lawyer service complaints
These complaints can come from the client, the opposing party, a third party, members of the public or another lawyer.
If the client wishes to change lawyers, such a request can be made to the Client and Lawyer Services Department.
The Complaints Department directs complaints to district offices for resolution (Stage I complaint).
7.3 Lawyer conduct complaints
These complaints can come from the client, the opposing party, a third party, member of the public or another lawyer.
Complaints about lawyer conduct which constitute a breach of LAO regulations are referred to the Investigations Department for resolution.
Complainants for these matters are also advised that they can contact the Law Society of Ontario (LSO), which sets and enforces educational, ethical and professional conduct standards for lawyers and paralegals in Ontario.
7.4 Contribution agreements/liens
The complainant in this case is usually the client, a contributor on behalf of a client, a joint owner in property, an opposing party or a judgment debtor.
The issue can be a concern regarding payment, account(s) billed by their lawyer, a dispute over the balance owing, or a dispute regarding the presence of a lien.
- Concerns regarding payment: the Client Account Services (CAS) Department in collaboration with the district office, who will confirm the payments received by the client, as well as the outstanding balance remaining on the contribution agreement.
- Dispute over the balance owing on a contribution agreement: the CAS Department will provide the client with a breakdown of the outstanding balance.
- Dispute regarding the presence of a lien: the CAS Department will address the concerns presented by the complainant.
7.5 LAO policy complaints
Any individual could have concerns regarding the policies of LAO. Such complaints have come from clients, lawyers, members of the public, and community groups for example.
These complaints include coverage policies implemented by LAO, the Tariff and Billing Handbook maintained by the Lawyer Services and Payments Department, the service regulations for Duty Counsel (DC), or LAO office hours, for example.
As these complaints usually arise after the exhaustion of all the avenues of recourse available to the complainant, the complainant is usually referred to the Complaints Department.
Since the Complaints Department does not have the authority to amend the policies of LAO to accommodate the concerns of a complainant, the Complaints Department will review the complainant’s concerns and report them to LAO management for their consideration.
7.6 Complaints about LAO staff including staff lawyers
Any individual could have concerns regarding LAO staff. Such complaints could come from clients, lawyers, members of the public, community groups, etc.
The Complaints Department directs complaint information to the local district office or Provincial Office Manager as a Stage I complaint for resolution.
7.7 Complaints about duty counsel (either staff or per diem)
Any individual could have concerns regarding the services provided by duty counsel. Such complaints could come from clients, lawyers, members of the public or community groups, for example.
The Complaints Department directs complaint information to the local district office as a Stage I complaint for resolution.
7.8 Clinic complaints
Complaints regarding clinics, student legal aid societies (SLASS) or Aboriginal legal services corporations (ALSC) are usually initiated by clinic clients, their agents or members of the public.
Before a clinic complaint can be reviewed by the Complaints Department, the complainant must present their concerns to the clinic or ALSC’s board of directors or the dean of the SLASS law school, and obtain the board’s or dean’s decision in the matter of their complaint.
The complainant should be advised of the clinic complaint process and directed to the clinic, SLASS or ALSC in question to pursue its complaints process.
Once the complaint has been reviewed by the Clinic or ALSC’s Board of Directors or the SLASS Dean, and the complainant has received the Board’s or Dean’s written decision regarding their complaint, the complainant may request a review by the Complaints Department if they are not satisfied with the outcome by the Board of Directors or Dean.
Once the Complaints Department has completed their review of the complaint, a written decision is provided to the complainant.
7.9 French Language Services complaints
These issues originate from clients, agents, lawyers or other members of the public who are concerned with French-language services provided by various LAO offices.
These complaints are referred to the Coordinator, French Language Services as a Stage I complaint for resolution.
7.10 Money paid in addition to LAO certificate
This is a matter where the client or contributor on behalf of the client pays monies to the lawyer in addition to the acknowledged legal aid certificate after the effective date of the certificate.
The complainant is usually the client or third party on behalf of the client.
As this constitutes a breach of section 95 of the Legal Aid Services Act, (LASA) 1998, these complaints must be referred to the Investigations Department.
The Investigations Department will require some documentation from the complainant to attest to the payment of the funds, such as a receipt or copy of a deposited cheque. In addition, the complainant will be notified in writing and provided with the client consent and waiver (CCW) which must be signed by the client and returned to the Investigations Department. With the CCW and other relevant information, the Investigations Department will determine whether a breach of LASA has occurred and will take the necessary steps to address the matter.
7.11 Breach of privacy or confidentiality
Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) is covered by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA) and, accordingly, subject to external scrutiny by the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC).
The Complaints Department directs complaint information to the local district office or Provincial Office Manager as a Stage I complaint for resolution. The local office will contact LAO’s FIPPA coordinator for advice in dealing with the complaint.
8.1 Third party eligibility concerns
These concerns are most frequently initiated by either the opposing party in ongoing civil litigation or family law matters, various members of the public, or lawyers (whether retained by the client in question or the opposing party). Concerns are also received with respect to criminal and refugee law matters.
As a government-funded organization, Legal Aid Ontario strives to ensure that its services are not misused. However, confidentiality provisions in both the Legal Aid Services Act and the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act prohibit us from disclosing or discussing the relationship of any individual to Legal Aid Ontario. As such, the complainant will receive an acknowledgement upon receipt of the complaint but no further status or resolution information will be provided due to client confidentiality restrictions. No further appeal is available for this type of inquiry.
If the Complaints Department receives the information pertaining to an individual’s eligibility for legal aid, the information is sent to the local district office. This may occur even if the individual complained about did not receive legal aid assistance, for the purposes of any future application by this person.
If the person in question received legal aid, the district office will review the complaint information and may conduct a reassessment of the client. In some instances, the client eligibility matter may be immediately referred to the Investigation Department. The district office will review the client file and may request the assistance of the Investigations Department in the event that any additional information regarding the client’s financial situation is required (i.e. corporate searches, credit checks, etc.). For confidentiality reasons, LAO cannot report the results of the investigation to the person making the complaint.
8.2 Disclosure of wrongdoing (DoW)
Complaints received by the President’s Office
Where it is determined that there is a DoW complaint, the President’s Office will:
- Advise the Complaints Department of the DoW complaint
- Ask the Complaints Department to log the complaint
- Ask the Complaints Department to record the complaint as “closed/referred by the President’s Office”
The President’s Office is responsible for the resolution of the DoW and for recording the outcome.
Applying only to complaints about LAO staff, the Public Service of Ontario Act (PSOA) contains disclosure of wrongdoing provisions that support the government’s commitment to transparency and accountability. The PSOA ensures that public servants, who are aware of wrongdoing, can reveal it with protection against reprisal. The PSOA defines “wrongdoing” by a public servant, minister or parliamentary assistant as:
- Contravening an act or regulation
- Creating a grave danger to life, health, safety or the environment by an action or failure to act that is unreasonable in the circumstances
- Gross mismanagement
- Directing or counseling someone to commit one of the above
To support the disclosure of wrongdoing framework, organizations in the public service have an ethics executive. The President is designated as LAO ethics executive.
An LAO employee who wishes to disclose wrongdoing has two options:
- Report the information directly to the Integrity Commissioner if he or she feels that internal disclosure would not be appropriate; or
- Report the information internally to the LAO ethics executive either through the Complaints Department or directly to the President’s Office.
Complaints received by the Complaints Department
If a complaint is received and is determined to be a DoW complaint under the PSOA, the Complaints Department will
- Log the complaint as a DoW complaint
- Refer the complaint to the President’s Office
- Note the complaint as “closed/referred to the President’s Office”
The President’s Office is responsible for the resolution of the DoW and for recording the outcome.
8.3 Inquiries by lawyers regarding the status or payment of accounts
These are not considered to be complaints.
Inquiries such as these should be directed to the Client and Lawyer Service Centre.
9. Release of information
LAO does not provide information about legal aid applicants or their applications if a complaint is made. There is also information that LAO cannot provide because of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA). In all other cases, the following information will be disclosed to a complainant upon request:
- Written communications about the complaint between the Complaints Department and the complainant
- Written communications about the complaint between the Complaints Department and the subject of the complaint
- Written responses to the complaint provided to the Complaints Department from the subject of the complaint
- Written responses to the complaint provided to the Complaints Department from the supervisor or manager of the subject of the complaint
10. The complaint process
There are three stages to the complaint process at LAO.
LAO will first try to resolve the complaint at the local level. This means that district offices, provincial departments, community legal clinics, student legal aid services societies (SLASS) and Aboriginal legal services corporations (ALSC) are responsible for trying to resolve the complaint, and for keeping records of all complaints and their outcomes. At this stage, complainants who contact the Complaints Department will be referred back to the district office, provincial department, clinic, SLASS or ALSC for resolution.
Concerns regarding the eligibility of legal aid clients are Stage I complaints and are the responsibility of the district office.
The complainant will be sent an acknowledgement letter no more than five days after LAO receives the complaint. If the matter has not been resolved within 30 days, the complainant will receive a letter with an update. A status update letter is sent every 30 days until the matter is resolved.
The complaints resolution process in the district office or provincial department should be completed within two weeks. In difficult cases, the process may be extended to 30 days. If additional time is needed, for example because a third party has been contacted and a reply has not been received, LAO will send the complainant a status letter after 30 days.
Community legal clinics and Aboriginal legal services corporations
All clinics and ALSC must have a Stage I complaints policy, which means they must try to resolve complaints from clients and the public.
Generally, complaint policies set out the following:
- the right to complain
- who can complain
- what clients and the public can complain about
- the complaints process, and
- the right to appeal a clinic or ALSC’s board of directors’ decision to LAO
Clinic complainants must first file their complaints with the clinic or ALSC and follow that entity’s complaint policy before starting LAO’s complaint process.
Once the complaint has been investigated, the clinic or ALSC board will send the complainant a letter with the outcome of the investigation and any resolution. This letter should also advise the complainant of the right to request a review of the decision by the Complaints Department.
Student legal aid services societies (SLASS)
Every SLASS must have a Stage I complaints policy. Like the clinics policy, this means the SLASS must try to resolve complaints first. SLASS complainants should first file their complaints with the SLASS, and follow the SLASS complaints policy before starting LAO’s complaint process.
Once the complaint has been investigated, the complainant will receive a letter from the dean of the law school where the SLASS is located, with the outcome of the investigation and any resolution. This letter should also advise the complainant of the right to request a review of the decision by the Complaints Department.
A complainant has the right to contact the Complaints Department in LAO’s provincial office for a review of the resolution when:
- the complainant is unhappy with the resolution the district office or provincial department has provided
- the complainant is unhappy with the final decision of the clinic or ALSC’s board or SLASS dean. The complainant must provide the Complaints Department with a copy of the written decision from the clinic or ALSC board or SLASS dean. Complainants who are clients of the clinic, ALSC or SLASS should also provide a signed release of information consent form. LAO will send the signed release form to the clinic, ALSC or SLASS, and ask the clinic or ALSC’s board of directors or the dean to respond.
The Complaints Department will send the complainant a letter no more than five days after LAO receives the complaint. If the matter has not been resolved within 30 days, the complainant will receive a letter with an update.
The complaints manager reviews how the director general, provincial office manager, clinic, SLASS or ALSC handled the complaint, and collects additional information from the complainant and the local office, if necessary.
The complaints manager confirms if the issues in the original complaint have been addressed and that the complainant has been provided with a written response. In the case of clinic, SLASS or ALSC complaints, the Complaints Department also confirms that the clinic’s complaint policy has been followed.
If more details are required, the complaints manager will send out a request for information with a deadline of 15 days. If necessary, a second request for information is sent, with a deadline of seven days. If no response is received at the end of the second deadline, the vice president in charge of the region or provincial department will be notified.
Possible outcomes to a Stage II complaint:
- LAO could determine that the district office, provincial department, clinic, SLASS or ALSC has properly addressed the issue(s) leading to the complaint, and decide that nothing more needs to be done.
- LAO could decide that the complaint does not fall within LAO’s area of responsibility and refer the complainant to another office or authority.
- LAO could determine that the district office, provincial department, clinic, SLASS or ALSC had not properly addressed the issue(s) leading to the complaint, and require that certain action be taken to resolve the situation.
Once the review by the complaints manager is completed, LAO will provide the complainant with a written decision. The complainant is also advised of the right to have the decision of the complaints manager reviewed by LAO’s General Counsel Office (GCO).
Exceptions to the above are as follows:
- The Complaints Department will refer a matter directly to the responsible vice president or designate as a Stage II complaint when:
- the complaint concerns a staff member who reports directly to a vice president
- the matter relates to governance concerns about a clinic. Governance concerns include:
- serious financial mismanagement
- misconduct or professional negligence by lawyers employed by the clinic
- significant personnel problems
- the usurping of board functions by staff or others
- As the Complaints Department is included in the Audit and Compliance Services Branch (ACSB) of Legal Aid Ontario, complaints about ACSB managers are determined to be automatic Stage II complaints to the Director, ACSB.
- Complaints about the staff of the General Counsel’s Office are determined to be automatic Stage II complaints to General Counsel or their designate. Stage III complaints pertaining to staff of the General Counsel’s Office will be resolved by a decision‑maker designated by the president.
If the complainant is unhappy with the resolution of the Complaints Department, General Counsel can review the complaint. General Counsel reviews the first and second stage resolutions and collects additional information, if necessary.
General Counsel will send the complainant an acknowledgement letter no more than five days after the complaint is received by General Counsel’s Office. If the matter has not been resolved within thirty days, the complainant will receive a letter with an update. A status update letter is sent every 30 days until the matter is resolved.
A written resolution is provided to the complainant when General Counsel completes the review. The decision of General Counsel is final. There is no appeal or further review.
In cases where General Counsel is determined to be in conflict, the president will designate an alternate decision maker.
Complaints pertaining to employees reporting directly to the president
Complaints about vice presidents and other employees reporting directly to the president are referred directly to president. Decisions by the president are final and are not subject to appeal.