LAO Newsroom

Connecting the Pieces: A Year End Progess Review

Posted on: Tuesday, December 30/08

June 2007 - October 2008

These are exciting times at LAO. Our strategic management plan to modernize our organization, meet efficiency targets and improve client service continues to gain momentum. From boosting poverty and family law services to saving taxpayers millions of dollars by co-locating offices, the spirit of change, efficiency, improved client service and innovation is everywhere you turn at LAO.

This review shares some of major successes from the launch of the Value Agenda in June 2007 to late fall 2008. It also looks ahead to the goals we have for the near future. While it does not contain the same detailed financial information, this review can be considered a companion to LAO's 2008 annual report. Both demonstrate the effective and efficient ways our Value Agenda and IMPAC strategy can improve client service while respecting our accountability for how we use public funds.

New Provincial Government Funding

In 2007, the provincial government committed to investing $51 million in funding to Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) over three years to improve access to justice for low-income Ontarians. At the end of the three years, LAO's budgetary base will include an additional $19 million.

LAO is using some of the new funds to increase front line services for women and children, expand community legal clinic services, widen French language services, improve services for the Aboriginal community and to increase tariff rates for private lawyers that accept legal aid certificates.

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Value Agenda

In 2007, LAO made a commitment to generate efficiencies of one per cent per year in each of the next five years. A new management strategy was created to guide the implementation of LAO's Value Agenda, which will identify savings that can be reinvested into client services and organizational modernization.

The goal of the Value Agenda is to match the government's $19 million increase to LAO's base funding with an equal amount of additional savings or value added improvements. By 2012, the internally generated improvements will create an additional $19 million of legal aid value.

Value Agenda initiatives generate either direct cash savings or service improvements related to productivity gains that result in more services for clients. Generated savings will be reinvested, with 2/3 dedicated to improving client services and 1/3 to organizational modernization.

All reasonable options are being considered to create this added value, including the application of new technology, the simplification of the administrative process, the elimination of overlap and duplication and making choices with the biggest impact for clients.

In the first year of the Value Agenda, LAO increased direct savings of $1.8 million and service improvements of $4.1 million for a total of $5.9 million, a significant step towards the overall five-year goal. This accomplishment has been reached through implementing a range of programs, policies and procedures that adhere to the five principles of the strategic management plan, IMPAC.

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IMPAC - Innovation, Measurement, Prioritization, Accountability, Coordination

LAO's strategy is to create a dynamic, modern organization that embraces the best management practices and encourages innovation at every level.

The IMPAC management principles will help implement the strategy over the next five years of LAO's development and achieve the Value Agenda. IMPAC principles will drive every level of LAO's operations in order to increase effectiveness and efficiency in line with LAO's statutory mandate:

Innovation: Establish an even more vigorous corporate culture that allows ideas to come forward and embraces new approaches to solving problems.

Measurement: Create and implement modern tools to measure LAO's performance, identify our successes and inform our decisions.

Prioritization: Establish inclusive and accountable processes and criteria for making clear and principled decisions about LAO's priorities and the allocation of resources.

Accountability: Ensure that clear, sound management and financial accountability systems are in place throughout LAO so there is no doubt where responsibility lies for taking action and making decisions at all levels. LAO will ensure that the legislation governing and setting out precise roles and functions for LAO will be scrupulously followed.

Coordination: Give full expression to LAO's legislated mandate to maximize impact for clients by improving the coordination of legal aid services and ensuring synergy among all LAO programming and administrative functions.

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South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO)

In September 2007, LAO allocated $1.36 million of the new provincial government funding for the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO). This will provide the clinic with stable, three-year operational funding. SALCO will receive $300,000 in the first year, $521,000 in the second year and $538,000 in the third year.

The South Asian population in Toronto is one of the fastest growing minority groups in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Moving from project-specific funding to ongoing operational funding allows SALCO to focus more time on client service instead of fundraising.

SALCO has been operating with unpredictable project funding since 1999. The new base funding will ensure that Toronto's South Asian community continues to be served and that more time can be devoted to long-term systemic work that ultimately serves more people, more efficiently.

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Aboriginal Justice Strategy

LAO committed $50,000 from the provincial government's investment to develop a three-to-five year Aboriginal Justice Strategy plan to improvement to legal services for Aboriginal people in Ontario.

In the summer of 2007, LAO began consulting with over 250 individuals, which included various members of the Aboriginal community, on the development of an organization-wide strategy for improving services to Aboriginal clients. The consultations provided LAO with a better understanding of local Aboriginal needs for legal aid services.

The strategy's goal focuses on improving the following four service issue areas:

  1. barriers to accessing justice
  2. lack of Aboriginal representation within LAO and LAO's Advisory Systems
  3. lack of Aboriginal legal representation or lack of legal representation properly informed about the unique needs of Aboriginal clients
  4. improving service on Aboriginal specific legal issues and addressing the role of LAO in participating or supporting Aboriginal specific or driven processes.

After the strategic plan was approved by the board, LAO began implementing the Aboriginal Strategy to improve services to Aboriginal clients in 2008/09 and to start reaching out to more clients. The strategy includes recommended strategic directions, options for enhancing legal aid services and recommendations to potentially introduce new services for Ontario's Aboriginal communities.

LAO is also working closely with the Ministry of the Attorney General (MAG) to ensure a high level of coordination between LAO's and the Ministry's Aboriginal strategies. Once the strategy is fully implemented, LAO's goal is to enhance and improve Aboriginal legal services so that they become a part of LAO's corporate knowledge, environment, culture and policy.

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French Language Services (FLS)

The provincial government's funding provided $150,000 to enhance French language services (FLS) in community legal clinics across the province to enable them to provide better services to low-income French speaking people in Ontario.

Clinics had the opportunity to submit funding proposals for one-time or short-term initiatives and pilot projects, e.g. training, translation and websites, which resulted in funding for 26 new initiatives. The clinics' initiatives and projects are required to enhance the provision of French language legal aid services, access to justice in the French language and access to general and legal information in French.

In line with LAO's IMPAC strategy and the Value Agenda, an implementation plan was developed for 2008/10 for both LAO and community legal clinics to increase awareness and support the enhancement of FLS.

The plan's main areas of focus are to:

  • increase FLS awareness,
  • provide French training,
  • actively offer services in French,
  • enhance overall services, including targeted sectors, and
  • use technology and innovation in the provision of FLS.

One of the plan's priorities is also to develop an FLS governance structure in order to establish appropriate FLS accountabilities throughout the organization. As a result, the following steering committees have been or are being created:

  • FLS Steering Committee
  • LAO Implementation Team
  • Community Stakeholder Advisory Group
  • Clinic Advisory Group

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New LAO Chair

In June 2007, the Ontario government appointed Professor John McCamus as the new chair of Legal Aid Ontario. McCamus, a recognized expert in the area of legal aid, is serving a three-year term that began July 5, 2007.

In 1996, McCamus chaired a task force that conducted an independent review of Ontario's legal aid system, the first in its 30-year history. As a result, Legal Aid Ontario was created as an independent agency responsible for the administration of the province's legal aid system.

McCamus' background, expertise, commitment to legal aid and access to justice issues place him in a good position to lead Legal Aid Ontario over the next three years.

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Corporate Reorganization

LAO implemented a corporate reorganization strategy to maximize services, nurture innovation and help achieve the Value Agenda. The new structure, based upon regional lines, has three regional vice presidents responsible for all legal aid services in those regions. The regional vice presidents have the autonomy to make decisions and influence programming in a way that is responsive to local and corporate needs.

The regional model breaks down service silos, improves communication, increases coordination of client services and resources and provides clear reporting structures for area offices, regions and LAO as a whole. It creates clearer lines of accountability and puts managers in closer contact with front line staff, which enables LAO to respond effectively and efficiently to regional needs.

To better support the new regional structure, several internal departments and services were realigned. The corporate reorganization provides LAO with a platform to achieve its overall business objective: to maximize the impact for low-income Ontarians with available resources.

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Complaints Reorganization

Until May 2008, LAO's Complaints Department only resolved complaints from clients that were not satisfied by area offices. As part of LAO's corporate reorganization to maximize services, nurture innovation and help achieve the Value Agenda, the Complaint's Department also took on the role of resolving clinic complaints.

A complaint may be made by any person including:

  • a client who has received or is currently receiving services;
  • an individual who has been refused a service from LAO;
  • anyone who is otherwise affected by LAO services.

Clients not satisfied with any of Legal Aid Ontario's services, community legal clinics' services, or with their lawyer have the right to file a complaint. The first stage of a complaint starts at the local level, from where it originated. Staff members try to resolve complaints either informally or formally. If an issue cannot be resolved locally, it is escalated to the Complaints Department for stage two resolutions.

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Internal Audit and Evaluation

The new Internal Audit and Evaluation Unit focuses on providing recommendations to managers about areas needing improvement and establishes evaluation frameworks for area offices and clinics.

The unit audits program delivery, assesses customer service and accountability, and ensures compliance with regulations. Audits support LAO's Value Agenda and the five principles of the IMPAC management strategy by:

  • identifying opportunities for Innovation,
  • using performance data to Measure performance,
  • assessing whether Priorities are properly weighted,
  • identifying where the lines of Accountability are unclear,
  • making sure programs are Coordinated to maximize efficiency and effectiveness.

The IMPAC strategy is focused on reducing costs and increasing efficiencies so dollars are spent where they provide the greatest return for clients. Audits promote effective control at a reasonable cost.

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Big Case Management (BCM) and Protocol Cases

LAO is working on significant improvements to protocol cases as well as the Big Case Management (BCM) program for criminal cases expected to cost more than $20,000.

LAO conducted a review of criminal big case policies and practices to determine what measures are required in order to achieve greater accountability. A protocol was also developed with MAG that provides a clear procedure for those rare occasions when a judge orders the province to fund the defence of an accused person who is not receiving legal aid.

The protocol requires that when a defence funding application is made to the court, Legal Aid Ontario and MAG will appear together before the judge to jointly recommend a formal funding and billing arrangement be included as part of a court order.

LAO and MAG will recommend defence counsel be paid at legal aid rates, regardless of the source of funding. The protocol says LAO should manage these cases according to its normal billing and payment rules.

The protocol cannot make orders that override the court if it decides to set a different hourly rate, as the judge has the final authority, but a vigorous payment agreement would still be applicable.

LAO is also pursuing further recommendations to change the BCM program and the management of protocol cases, improving client services and ensuring taxpayers dollars are spent as wisely as possible. Based on the recommendations, there will be more focused management oversight and clearer accountability of BCM and protocol cases to better reflect their cost and importance to the justice system.

Several steps have already been taken to reform the BCM program:

  1. The program now reports directly to senior management through a vice president.
  2. Additional staff have been added to support the program.
  3. Budgets for cases with a potential cost of more than $75,000 are signed off by the vice president.
  4. Decision making on budgets is based on abundant information.
  5. Counsel seeking BCM budgets must now agree to adhere to a series of expectations with respect to the budgets they receive and how the resources are spent.

Several other initiatives are underway, including improving methods to ensure that lawyers taking on big cases can deliver high quality service in a cost-effective manner, monitoring cases more closely throughout the proceedings and creating standards for lawyers.

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Move to Atrium on Bay

LAO co-located the Toronto Area Office, Refugee Law Office, Toronto Family Law Office and the Provincial Head Office onto a single floor at the Atrium on Bay in July 2008. The new location facilitates increased coordination of services and resources, an example of LAO's commitment to achieving cost efficiencies through the Value Agenda.

The move will generate about $900,000 in annual savings by lowering the annual lease rate and reducing space requirements from 85,000 square feet to 65,000 square feet through the use of modern office space design and layout practices.

The new "open office" work environment is innovative, enhances communication and coordination and is in line with the Ontario Public Service and other public sector organization standards.

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Paperless Records Project

To improve efficiencies and move to a paperless environment, the Records Department Scanning (RDS) Project took the first step in LAO's long-term goal of implementing a corporate-wide, electronic record-keeping plan. The project will significantly reduce the physical size of the Records Department through the scanning and storing of all records in electronic format.

The two primary contributors to files stored in the Records Department were Lawyer Services and Payments (LSP) and Client Account Services (CAS).

LSP discovered several ways to improve the way they do business and store records. Process mapping helped LSP identify the sources, quantity of paper and information flowing into the department. This helped create more efficient information storage and cost effective routing. LSP's new approach makes the most of modern, paperless technology including scanning, converting to Portable Document Format (PDF), e-faxing, e-filing and email.

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Performance Measurement Program

The best decisions require the most accurate information and the Performance Measurement Program fills that need. It provides a mechanism for generating comparative data to track legal aid programs and Value Agenda service improvements.

A plan was developed to establish balanced scorecard performance measures across LAO over the next three to four years. This initiative will provide LAO with information for strategic planning to account for expenditures, and it will allow for timely adjustments as issues arise while guaranteeing continuous improvement across the organization.

Performance measurement allows LAO to monitor and report on how goals are being met with both legal service programs and key corporate activities. It also helps LAO determine how well it is promoting access to justice for low-income individuals and providing legal aid services in an effective and efficient manner.

The new measurement framework, which will evolve gradually over the next three years, will enable innovation and coordination, inform priority setting and ensure accountability.

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Development of Common Productivity Measurement Indicator

To ensure LAO has consistent measurement data for its programs, LAO developed a common productivity measurement indicator that ties into the Performance Measurement Program.

The Productivity Measurement Indicator provides LAO with a mechanism for generating comparative efficiency data to track service for the certificate, duty counsel and clinic programs. This common index measures the number of service or activity units (certificates, assists, etc.) per $10,000 of cost. The higher the productivity indicator, the higher the level of efficiency. If the index has increased on a comparative basis, overall efficiency has increased.

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Retained Area Directors Consultation

Legal Aid Ontario supports a network of 51 area offices across the province, each of them managed by area directors. Traditionally, full-time area directors were hired in larger urban centres, while retained area directors (part-time) were hired in medium and smaller communities.

Coinciding with LAO's Value Agenda and IMPAC strategy, LAO developed a discussion paper, Improving Regional Accountability: Report on the Role of Retained Area Directors, to improve accountability by examining the future roles and responsibilities of retained area directors. This paper was circulated in December 2007 with three options for a new model.

LAO held consultations in January 2008 to seek advice and feedback from current area directors, both full-time and retained, as well as area office employees. In March 2008, the Retained Area Directors Association presented LAO with a fourth option for consideration.

LAO is working with regional full-time and retained area directors to better define their roles within a cost-efficient new model that provides flexibility and the best possible service. The evolution of the new retained area director role will depend on the different needs and timetables in each region. As the Regional Vice Presidents put in place the necessary management structures to run each region, new roles will take shape. A final report will be completed in 2008.

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LAO in the Courthouse

The Ontario government's recently announced Justice on Target strategy will reduce delays and appearances by 30 per cent over the next four years in order to create a more efficient and effective justice system.

LAO is playing a major role in helping reduce court appearances by working in partnership with MAG to place legal aid application offices in an additional 17 criminal court locations. Once these locations are added, on-site legal aid offices will be operating in 25 courthouses serving almost 80 per cent of criminal legal aid clients province-wide.

Allowing accused persons to apply for legal aid in courthouses will help individuals retain a lawyer more quickly. Getting a lawyer on a case faster will help decrease the number of appearances needed to resolve a case, allowing cases to move through the system more efficiently. Fewer unnecessary court appearances will reduce criminal certificate costs for LAO and justice system costs for the province.

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Simplified Online Application Process (SOAP)

A Simplified Online Application Process (SOAP) was introduced in January 2008, in some of LAO's area offices and duty counsel offices, as part of an effort to help "clearly eligible" clients get access to legal aid services more quickly and efficiently.

About 40 per cent of legal aid applicants "clearly" meet both the financial and legal criteria for certificate coverage because of their financial status and/or the seriousness of their legal matter.

SOAP provides a simple online application form and eligibility test that decreases the time required to complete an application and provide a client with a certificate decision.

This new Internet-based service may eventually provide expanded access points for legal aid services by allowing LAO offices and community service providers, such as shelters and defence lawyers, to submit a web based legal aid application for clients.

The pilot has demonstrated a 62 per cent reduction in processing time for applications. Area offices can dedicate the time saved on these simpler applications to more complex situations, leading to more timely decisions.

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Online Lawyer Acknowledgement (OLA)

A new enhancement was added to Legal Aid Online, a billing program which allows lawyers who do legal aid work to acknowledge certificates online.

A client indicates to LAO which lawyer they want. The lawyer receives the paper certificate and signs into Legal Aid Online to acknowledge the certificate. It is then updated in the system and can be billed against 24 hours later.

The billing program also works with SOAP, which issues eligible clients a Confirmation of Legal Aid Eligibility instead of a certificate. Lawyers access the Online Lawyer Acknowledgement (OLA) portal by entering the intake number listed on the client's Confirmation of Legal Aid Eligibility form to acknowledge and print the legal aid certificate.

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Ministry of the Attorney General (MAG) Working Group

LAO's relationship with the Ministry of the Attorney General (MAG) continues to grow stronger through cooperative efforts such as the ongoing MAG-LAO joint working group, which helped create the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on protocol cases. LAO is also playing a major role in the Justice on Target and Justice Ontario initiatives.

LAO stays in regular communication with MAG through bi-weekly working group meetings, in which LAO and MAG keep each other up-to-date on corporate directions and emerging issues as they arise.

This new level of cooperation and transparency has given both parties the opportunity to work collaboratively on initiatives of mutual interest, such as the Ministry's Justice on Target initiative, designed to improve the justice system efficiency, as well as Justice Ontario, an online service designed to broaden access to justice.

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Intra-Agency Relationships - LAO & clinics

LAO funds 80 community legal clinics province-wide. As part of the IMPAC management strategy, LAO is working on improving accountability by clarifying its relationship and funding role with community legal clinics.

Over the past year, consultations took place between LAO, community legal clinics and the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario (ACLCO) to seek advice, feedback and to work towards a solution that will be viable to all parties for the provision of clinic law. A discussion paper was developed to share with community legal clinics to help form the basis for discussions.

This process will improve communication and clarify roles, responsibilities and accountabilities. Ultimately, a more functional, modern and professional relationship between clinics and LAO will maximize the potential to increase efficiencies and to provide better services to clients.

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Ombudsman Report

A report by the Ontario Ombudsman in February 2008 pointed to deficiencies in the way LAO administered legal fees and disbursements in a prolonged and difficult murder case where the courts had ordered the Ministry of the Attorney General to fund the accused's defence.

The Ombudsman report revealed that there were a number of unusual circumstances that made proper management of the file particularly challenging. LAO accepted full responsibility for its role in the problems that were encountered.

As a result of the Ombudsman's report, LAO has implemented a series of clear and definitive administrative and management changes to all its big criminal cases. In particular, a new protocol for handling this type of situation was entered into with the Ministry of the Attorney General.

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Child Protection Training

For the second time, LAO partnered with the Office of Children's Lawyer (OCL) and the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies (OACAS) to offer LAO employees and panel members training in best practices for child protection matters.

Throughout April, May and June 2008, the training was offered to supervisory duty counsel, staff duty counsel and counsel from staff offices in 12 cities throughout the province.

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LAO employees across the province now have access to a new online training tool, one component of a blended learning process consisting of in-class sessions, networking and other formal or informal learning opportunities.

LAO's e-learning service provider is Element K, whose best in class courseware developed by Harvard Business School quickly boosts employee knowledge and skills in a rich learning environment.

LAO staff can access a library of over 100 e-learning courses to develop key competency and business skills, which can be worked through at their own pace either at work or at home. Managers also have access to an additional 40 plus courses that build leadership competency and business skills.

E-learning is a cost effective and efficient way for LAO to provide standardized courses to all employees throughout the province regardless of their geographic distance.

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Technology Advances

To keep up with technological advances, LAO's IT department has worked on a number of initiatives in the past year that tie into LAO's IMPAC strategy and Value Agenda and will provide better service at a lower cost. These include:

Thin Client
The implementation of thin client will make LAO's computer systems faster and more efficient, resolving many of the problems area offices, duty counsel and provincial office presently face.

Thin Client is a technology infrastructure where software (e.g. Outlook, Microsoft Word), resides on network servers instead of the desktop, making the system faster and more reliable. Employees continue to use their existing desktops to connect to a Thin Client server, which is accessed from an icon on the desktop.

LAO is currently testing this new technology in five area offices to iron out any potential issues before it is rolled out to all employees. Once implemented, Thin Client will reduce desktop replacement, support costs and improve security.

Phone System Upgrade
LAO is in the process of implementing a new Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone system that will provide new dimensions, flexibility and affordable options for the future.

The upgrade will result in annual savings of between $75,000 and $100,000 in the near term and more savings in the future as LAO continues to build on the technology.