LAO Newsroom

Legal Aid Ontario provides access to justice in many languages

Posted on: Wednesday, January 14 /09

Language barriers make it difficult for many people in Ontario to access the right services or information. Legal Aid Ontario helps by providing services in many languages for Francophones, Aboriginals, non-English/non-French speakers and the hearing impaired. Interpretive services in the courts are also available for non-English/non-French speakers through the Ministry of the Attorney General.

French Language Services

Francophones have the right under the French Language Services Act to equal quality service in French, even if they speak English.

Currently there are French language services available in 25 designated areas across Ontario.

All area offices that serve French designated areas, regardless of their location, must provide language services in French. This includes legal services for clients eligible for the certificate program.

Language services are also available in designated courthouses. Clients who appear in these courts without legal representation can receive assistance from a bilingual duty counsel, or an interpreter.

The Brydges hotline, accessible to anyone in police custody needing immediate legal assistance, guarantees access to a list of legal services in French, including bilingual lawyers.

Family Law Information Centres (FLIC) also provide access to French interpretation services.

As they are independent, community legal clinics are not required to offer services in French, despite their close working relationship with Legal Aid Ontario. A large number of clinics do recognise the need in certain areas and are either fully or significantly able to provide French language services.

Aboriginal Language Services

Some interpretive services are available through organizations, partly funded by Legal Aid Ontario, that deal specifically with Aboriginal legal issues.

The highest demand for services is in Northen Ontario two-thirds of which is occupied by the small and remote communities of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation (NAN). Nishnawbe-Aski Legal Services Corporation (NALSC) can assist members of NAN in Cree, Anishinabemowen (Ojibway) and Oji-cree.

Members of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation make up NALC's Community Legal Workers (CLW), who speak the major dialects of the fly-in and other communities they serve. CLW provides interpretive services for defence counsel and legal aid clients only. NALSC, also funded by the Ministry of the Attorney General, administers a comprehensive, regularly scheduled duty counsel program that flies into communities for court dates.

Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto (ALST) also offer services in Cree and Anishinabemowen (Ojibway) but the organization often deals with Mohawk and other Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) speakers. Although interpretive services aren't usually necessary due to the high preference for services in English, ALST staff can usually locate an interpreter in the community that can assist in other Aboriginal languages on the spot. ALST also offers interpretation services through its Aboriginal Courtroom Program.

Other community legal clinics with Aboriginal language services include all three locations of Keewaytinok Native Legal Services in Moosonee, which provide services in English and different dialects of Cree. While they cover legal matters uniquely Aboriginal, Manitoulin Legal Clinic and Kinna Aweya Legal Clinics offer language services mostly in English and, depending on the branch, occasionally in French.

Non-English/non-French speakers

Many area offices and clinics offer interpretation and translation services to clients. However, whether services are available depends on location, the level of demand and if an interpreter can be found.

Family members or friends are welcome to assist, but if an interpreter is needed, clients must make an appointment with a legal aid area office or community legal clinic in advance to have someone on site.

People who do not speak English or French and are in police custody have access to interpretive services through the Brydges hotline.

Interpreting services are provided in over 170 different languages for a fee. The fee is usually covered by the police station, unless an interpreter is available through a community-based organization. The Brydges hotline service maintains a list of lawyers and telephone numbers who are collectively fluent in over 20 languages.

Hearing Impaired

Although sign language interpreters are not contracted for clients who are applying for legal assistance, Legal Aid Ontario will hire one if the client receives a certificate and requires assistance at that time. TTY services are also available if clients are contacting the area office or clinic by phone.

As with other languages, clients can bring a relative or friend to interpret, but for professional services, an appointment must be scheduled in advance with the area office or clinic.

Non-English or French in the courts

Interpreting services for over 100 languages, including American and Québec sign language, are available to all Ontario courthouses. However, with the exception of French, availability of interpretive services may depend on where the courthouse is located.

In areas where there is a great demand for specific languages, duty counsel can provide access to interpreters almost immediately. If the language is in less demand, clients may have to have their court dates rescheduled based on the availability of an interpreter.

A client's lawyer can request interpretive services in advance, but if duty counsel is assisting, a request won't be made until after the client's first appearance before the court. The request will be documented on the court record, then filed and forwarded to the court office. If duty counsel does not make the request, the client can ask either duty counsel or the presiding judicial official to do so.

For more information on requesting court interpreter services, click on