LAO complaints policy

Published: January 23, 2020


Policy of guidelines and procedures for receiving and processing complaints about LAO staff and services

Last updated: June 2020

1. Purpose

Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) created its complaints policy to:

  • Make sure individuals know their right to make a complaint, and the procedures involved

  • Make sure that complaints are dealt with fairly and quickly. It does not matter how the complaint is made (verbally or written), or who makes it (the legal aid applicant or another person).

2. What is a complaint?

A complaint is an expression of dissatisfaction with a service provided by LAO or with the policies of LAO. The Complaints Department accepts complaints by telephone, by fax, by email, by mail and also through the Ethics Hotline. Complaints will also be accepted in person if an appointment is made in advance. LAO accepts anonymous complaints as well.

The Importance of Complaints to LAO

LAO is responsible for ensuring that a professional and conscientious approach is taken to managing client files; that good quality legal services are provided; that all matters are managed on a timely basis and in accordance with the established policies and procedures. 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.

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. However, there are some complaints that LAO Complaints Department does not have the authority to handle alone. Although there is no complete list, examples 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 do not fall under LAO’s Complaints Department jurisdiction.

The Complaints Department is LAO’s liaison to the Ontario Ombudsman and responsible for providing information to the Ombudsman as required by legislation. Any inquiries from the Ontario Ombudsman directly received by LAO staff should be forwarded to the Complaints Department.

LAO will not accept complaints about the refusal of LAO applications due to either financial or legal ineligibility when the option of a review or an appeal is available to the applicant

The LAO complaints process is not an avenue for disputing the outcome of a formal appeal, review or reconsideration. In these cases, the complainant will be advised that no action will be taken beyond what was decided in the appeal, review or reconsideration.

Responsibilities of the Complaint Resolving Party and 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

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 including informing of a decision to cancel the complaint
  • Cooperate with the Complaints department
  • Treat LAO staff with respect

3. Types of Complaints

Lawyer Billing Complaint

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.

Resolution Process
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 is in receipt of the lawyer’s detailed accounts for the certificate(s) in dispute. The client is then instructed to review the accounts and provide their objections in writing, as well as their signed waiver and consent to release to the Complaints Department the objection letter to the lawyer in question.

The Complaints Department will then provide a copy of the client’s complaint to the lawyer for his response. Once the lawyer’s reply is received, the documents are referred to the LSP Department. A staff lawyer in the LSP Department will conduct the review of the account(s) and provide the client with the outcome in writing. In some instances, where serious billing irregularities is identified, LSP may refer the matter to the Investigations Department.

Lawyer Service Complaints

These complaints can come from the client, the opposing party, a third party or member 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.

Resolution Process:
The Complaints Department directs complaint information to the District Office as a Stage I complaint for resolution.

Lawyer Conduct Complaints

These complaints can originate from the client, the opposing party, a third party or member of the public or another lawyer.

Resolution Process:
Allegations of breaches of Legal Aid Ontario legislation, regulations and policies will be provided to the Investigations department for assessment. The complainant will be advised at the conclusion of the investigations department’s review.

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.

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.

Resolution Process:
The Complaints Department does not have the authority to amend the policies of LAO. The Complaints Department will review the complainant’s concerns and report them to the Management of LAO for their consideration. The Stage II resolution option is not available for policy complaints.

Complaints about LAO staff

Any individual could have concerns regarding LAO staff. Such complaints have come from clients, lawyers, members of the public, community groups, etc.

Resolution Process:
The Complaints Department directs complaint information to the local District Office or Provincial Office Manager as a Stage I complaint for resolution.

Complaints about Duty Counsel (either staff or per diem)

Any individual could have concerns regarding the services provided by Duty Counsel. Such complaints have come from clients, lawyers, members of the public, community groups for example.

Resolution Process:
The Complaints Department directs complaint information to the local District Office as a Stage I complaint for resolution.

Clinic/SLASS/ALSC Complaints

LAO has authority to review and resolve some complaints regarding clinics, Student Legal Aid Societies (SLASS) or Aboriginal Legal Services Corporations (ALSC), once the clinic internal complaint process has been exhausted. LAO does not accept complaints related to matters internal to clinic/SLASS/ALSC operations such as human resources issues, staff performance or the administration of internal clinic processes.

These complaints are usually initiated by clients, their agents or members of the public. A Clinic/SLASS/ALSC complaint can be reviewed by the VP–Clinic Law Services once the complainant has exhausted the appeal process of the Clinic/SLASS/ALSC.

Resolution 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 VP–Clinic Law Services if they are not satisfied with the outcome by the Board of Directors or Dean. The complainant will be provided with a written decision at the conclusion of the VP Clinic Law’s review. The VP’s decision is final and no Stage II resolution option is available for this type of complaints.

French Language Service Complaints

These issues originate from clients, agents, lawyers or other members of the public who are concerned with the French language services provided by the various offices of LAO.

Resolution Process:
These complaints are referred to the Coordinator, French Language Services as a Stage I complaint for resolution.

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 with an advisement to the District Office.

Allegations of money in addition to certificate services will be referred to the Investigations department for assessment. The complainant will be advised in writing of the general determination of the investigations department’s review.

Breach of privacy or confidentiality

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).

Resolution Process:
The Complaints department will forward complaints pertaining to breach of privacy or confidentiality to the District Office of Provincial Office Manager for Stage I resolution. The FIPPA Coordinator will be copied and will provide assistance as required.

Concerns/Inquiries

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.

Concerns of this nature are taken seriously. 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.

Resolution Process:
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 is not in receipt of legal aid assistance, for the purposes of any future application by this person.

If the person in question is in receipt of legal aid, the District Office will review the complaint information and may conduct a reassessment of the client. 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 (e.g., corporate searches, credit checks, etc.). For confidentiality reasons, LAO cannot report the results of the investigation to the person making the complaint.

Eligibility for legal aid assistance or application status

These are not considered to be complaints.

Inquiries such as these should be directed to the Client and Lawyer Service Centre or to the District Office.

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.

4. Disclosure of Wrongdoing (DoW)

The Public Service of Ontario Act (PSOA) contains disclosure of wrongdoing provisions that support the government’s commitment to transparency and accountability. In accordance with the PSOA, members of LAO staff who are aware of wrongdoing by an LAO employee, 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’s Ethics Executive.

An LAO employee who wishes to disclose wrongdoing has two options:

  1. Report the information directly to the Integrity Commissioner if he or she feels that internal disclosure would not be appropriate.
    http://www.oico.on.ca/home/disclosure-of-wrongdoing; or
  2. 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:

  1. Log the complaint as a DoW complaint
  2. Refer the complaint to the President’s Office
  3. 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.

Complaints received by the President’s Office

Where it is determined that there is a DoW complaint, the President’s Office will:

  1. Advise the Complaints Department of the DoW complaint
  2. Ask the Complaints Department to log the complaint
  3. 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.

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

5. The Complaint Process

In most cases there are two stages to the complaint process at LAO.

Stage I

LAO will first try to resolve the complaint at the local level. This means that District Offices and Provincial Departments 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 or Provincial Department for resolution.

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 thirty days, the complainant will receive a letter with an update. A status update letter is sent every thirty days until the matter is resolved.

Stage II

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 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 thirty days, the complainant will receive a letter with an update.

The Complaints Manager reviews how the Director General or Provincial Office manager, handled the complaint, and collects additional information from the complainant and the local office, if necessary.

Exceptions to the above are as follows:

  • Complaints pertaining to the President/CEO of Legal Aid Ontario are to be received by the Chair of the Board of Directors.
  • Complaints about Vice Presidents and other employees reporting directly to the President are referred directly to President as Stage II complaints.
  • Complaints about the staff of the General Counsel’s Office are determined to be automatic Stage II complaints to General Counsel or his/her designate.
  • 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.
  • As the Complaints department is included in the Audit and Compliance Services Branch (ACSB), complaints about ACSB Managers are determined to be automatic Stage II complaints to the Director, ACSB.