Meeting of Legal Aid Ontario Racialized Communities advisory committee on April 25, 2018

Published: April 25, 2018

1. Committee members

John McCamus (Chair), Karin Baqi, Amy Casipullai, Regini David, Andrea Davis, Avvy Go, Sharmaine Hall, Michael Harris, Khalid Janmohammed, Nene Kwasi Kafele, Melissa Loizou, Shawn Richard, Joanne St. Lewis, Rinaldo Walcott, Melayna Williams, Remy Boulbol (Legal Aid Ontario Board Liaison)

Legal Aid Ontario staff attending: Marcus Pratt, Moya Teklu, Tom Kelsey, Heather Morgan

2. Welcome and introductions

Chair John McCamus opened the meeting and welcomed those present.

3. Legal Aid Ontario overview and update slide deck

The Chair provided members with information on the role and mandate of Legal Aid Ontario’s advisory committees and on Legal Aid Ontario’s governance structure, funding, and services. The Chair also presented highlights of the Legal Aid Ontario Board Advisory Committees Spring 2018 Meetings: Legal Aid Ontario Updates and Environmental Scan slide deck, although the deck was not presented in its entirety.

The advisory committees are mandated under Ontario’s Legal Aid Services Act, and meet twice per year, in spring and fall. Their work is structured, in timing and purpose, to align with the business planning cycle at Legal Aid Ontario. Legal Aid Ontario’s annual business plan is provided to the Ministry of the Attorney General and the end of each calendar year. The focus at spring committee meetings is on an environmental scan, and in the fall the committees discuss potential priorities for the new business plan. Advisory committee minutes are posted on the Legal Aid Ontario website, along with the names of committee members accompanied by a brief biographical sketch. The minutes are received by the Board along with a cover report that summarizes the input and advice from the meetings.

A brief overview of legal aid in Ontario was provided for the benefit of the new committee. Initially there was no legal aid scheme in Ontario although a judge could ask a lawyer to assist an unrepresented litigant on a volunteer basis. Later, Ontario’s Law Society began to administer a system for reimbursing the out of pocket expenses of lawyers who provided these volunteer services. By the end of the 1960s, there was a formal legal aid plan, administered by the Law Society, which provided publicly funded criminal and civil law services. In the 1970s, the community legal clinic system began, starting with the Parkdale clinic. The clinics were freestanding legal corporations that provided poverty law services.

Legal aid continued to expand until the mid‑1990s, when financial pressures resulted in significant downsizing and capped funding. A 1997 study and report on the future of legal aid recommended that the two systems, the legal aid plan and the clinic system, be brought together under a single statutory framework and that they no longer be administered by the Law Society. The government agreed with these recommendations and the Legal Aid Services Act, 1998, was the result. Under that statute, Legal Aid Ontario was created as an independent agency, accountable to and primarily funded by the province, and governed by a Board of Directors. In addition to provincial funding, Legal Aid Ontario also receives funding from the federal government and variable funding, which is dependent on interest rates on lawyers’ trust accounts, from the Law Foundation of Ontario.

Today, legal aid coverage is provided in the areas of criminal, family, immigration and refugee and mental health law. Legal Aid Ontario funds certificate, duty counsel and staff services, and operates a toll‑free call centre. Clinics provide poverty law services.

A significant development at legal aid in recent years is the financial eligibility expansion program that began in 2014. Another significant feature of legal aid policy and service provision is the ongoing development and implementation of Legal Aid Ontario’s client strategies. Starting with the Aboriginal Justice Strategy, which started ten years ago, Legal Aid Ontario began to focus on identifying the legal needs and service gaps affecting specific client groups. With the Aboriginal Justice Strategy, an important first step was identifying how many Indigenous clients were receiving legal aid services, and this was done through the development of an Aboriginal Self Identification Question. Since then, Legal Aid Ontario has introduced strategies for mental health, domestic violence, and bail. A prison law strategy is also under development, as is the Racialized Communities Strategy. The strategy leads work together to ensure that intersections are recognized.

4. Racialized Communities Strategy update and discussion

The update on development of the Racialized Communities Strategy was provided by Legal Aid Ontario’s Racialized Communities Strategy lead.

The Board of Legal Aid Ontario committed to the development of the strategy in 2016, in recognition of the fact that people who are racialized experience the justice system differently than non‑racialized people. The strategy cuts across all legal aid services and aims to identify barriers, develop improvements and explore options for service expansion.

The first stage of strategy development was an early engagement process, which resulted in a consultation paper that provided a high level overview of issues. Community consultations were then held, starting in fall 2017. Feedback indicated that attendance and engagement would be increased by asking community organizations to host consultation meetings, and this advice was followed. Over 40 organizations and more than 500 people were engaged through the community consultations. Consultation themes included lack of knowledge about financial and legal eligibility for legal aid, the need for training for certificate and duty counsel lawyers, and panel management to ensure high quality services are provided. The next steps will be the release of a paper summarizing the consultations in May, followed by the release of the strategy paper in December 2018 following approval by the Legal Aid Ontario Board. While it is too early to have a sense of the form that the strategy will take or its proposals for resourcing, the strategy is expected to include near term, medium term and longer term goals, and to address what the program’s success will look like over time. An early draft of the strategy paper is expected to be available for discussion at the fall meeting.

An early recommendation was that Legal Aid Ontario should collect race‑based data from clients and applicants. The Board adopted this recommendations and an external consultant was retained to train staff on how to collect this data. A working group of experts was also convened and this group developed the question. There is no script for the question, which provides staff asking the question with flexibility. The responses can be rolled up into census data so that data can be compared. Project Rosemary, named after Rosemary Brown, was launched on April 1, 2018. The aim is to have the question asked and answered approximately 95% of the time. Although no data is available yet, early feedback indicates that there are no issues with asking the question.

Legal Aid Ontario began this work before the Anti‑Racism Directorate released its data standards. Although Legal Aid Ontario is not obligated to collect data under the data standards, it is ensuring that best practices identified in the data standards are being followed.

An update on the provision of clinic law services to Black communities was provided. In August 2017, the Clinic Committee of LAO’s Board made a decision, under the three‑level dispute resolution process that applies to clinics, to withdraw funding from the African Canadian Legal Clinic on the basis of financial mismanagement and lack of board governance. All related decisions and the external auditor’s report are on the Legal Aid Ontario website. Legal Aid Ontario’s President and CEO issued a statement committing to no reduction in funding or services to Ontario’s Black communities as well as to the establishment of a new organization that would be up and running within a year.

Legal Aid Ontario has established interim services including a dedicated toll‑free phone line; brief services, advice and referrals through a staff lawyer and paralegal; funding to enable the Human Rights Legal Support Centre to provide assistance with matters arising under Ontario’s Human Rights Code; additional funding for Legal Aid Ontario’s Test Case Program; and law reform funding provided to the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers. These interim services mirror the services available from the African Canadian Legal Clinic prior to its defunding. Indications are that the new services are being accessed; for example, test case work appears to be on track with about $70,000 remaining unspent of the additional $200,000 set aside for this purpose. Summary advice and referrals are also on track. Over 100 clients have contacted and been served to date through the dedicated phone line. There have also been a number of referrals and calls to the Human Rights Legal Support Centre.

The new Black Legal Action Centre’s articles of incorporation were filed in September 2017. An external consulting group is assisting with consultations and needs assessment to inform the new clinic’s strategic plan and services. The hiring process for an Executive Director is underway and the new clinic is on track to open its doors in August.

Committee members provided the following input and advice. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of every member.

  • There was interest in the relationship between the Racialized Communities committee and Legal Aid Ontario’s eight other advisory committees. Some of the committees are subject‑area focused (criminal law, family law) while others focus on specific client groups. Given the intersections that exist across all areas, it is very important that linkages between areas of law and between the committees themselves be considered. It is important that the work of this committee not be siloed. Cross-appointments or alternatively targeted appointments to other committees, to ensure appropriate representation throughout, could help to ensure that intersectional impacts are taken into consideration. It is also important that the strategies and strategy leads work closely together to avoid the silo effect.

  • The collection of data through the April 1, 2018 launch of Project Rosemary was discussed. It will be important to track how frequently the question is asked and how frequently it is answered. Being able to roll up and compare the data to census data is also important.

  • There was discussion of uptake on the interim services being provided by Legal Aid Ontario until the new legal clinic is up and running. It appeared to the committee that uptake on these services is on track.

  • Members suggested that the new Black Legal Action Centre should be given a flexible mandate. Having too narrow a mandate could hamstring the new clinic. The original intention was that the African Canadian Legal Clinic not operate solely as a test case clinic, but that it should be able to provide general client services as well as taking on systemic test case work. What subsequently happened with that clinic was a management issue and not a mandate issue.

  • Members wanted to hear about the next steps in strategy development, following the release in May of the roll‑up report on strategy input. There are many important unknowns, including what requests will be made for resource allocation and what indicators of success will be established for the strategy. The identification of short, medium and long term objectives is of significant importance and interest. Members emphasized that it will be important to have early input on the draft strategy paper before it is finalized and submitted to the Board for approval.

  • It was pointed out that LAO’s initial consultation paper discusses over‑representation but does not overtly refer to racism. There is a need to acknowledge the existence of racism.

  • Two meetings per year may not be enough, particularly in these early days of strategy development. Members indicated a willingness to contribute more to the process. There was interest in having a mechanism, whether formal or informal, for LAO to reach out to the committee for input between meetings as needed. For example, the committee may have more of a sense of how to provide targeted input following the release of the consultation summary paper in May. While an interim meeting may not work for everyone, there is interest in having a forum or outlet of some kind for providing input to the strategy paper prior to the committee meeting in the fall.

5. Action items

  1. Legal Aid Ontario will continue to work to ensure that its advisory committees and vulnerable client strategies do not operate in silos.

  2. Legal Aid Ontario will facilitate information‑sharing between committee meetings and will provide an opportunity, either through an interim meeting or some other process, for input on the development of the strategy paper prior to the fall committee meeting.

6. Other business

None raised.