LAO clinic consultation paper decisions

Posted on: Tuesday, March 24, 2009

LAO is committed to improving client service by continuing to build a strong, effective and efficient legal aid system. One of the backbones of legal aid service delivery in Ontario is the network of legal clinics throughout the province. The people of Ontario have continually placed a great deal of importance on effective programs to address poverty law issues. In this regard, Ontarians, through the provincial government and Legal Aid Ontario, allocate about $65 million annually to clinics. Indeed, as a result of the provincial government’s 2007 budget, there was a new commitment of $51 million over three years to legal aid services and of that, $10.6 million has been directed to clinic law services.

The provincial government has important administrative safeguards to ensure that the transfer of public funds to bodies such as clinics are managed to the highest standards of accountability for client effectiveness and value for the public's tax dollar.

In 2008, LAO embarked on a consultation initiative to strengthen clinic services by examining the relationship between LAO and clinics. The document was entitled, "Discussion Paper on the Roles, Responsibilities, Relationships and Accountability Regarding Clinic Law Services". Its goal was and continues to be to discuss ideas to modernize and professionalize the LAO/clinic relationship by clarifying roles and responsibilities, creating clear accountabilities, further empowering clinics to manage their day-to-day operations, and ensuring optimal effectiveness of clinic law expenditure.

This paper raised a number of issues and discussed many ideas having to do with clinic funding criteria, performance measurement, needs assessment, funding models, the role and funding of the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario (ACLCO), the provision of services to clinics by LAO, and consultation practices.

There was an extensive, province-wide consultation on the paper. People across the province participated in these consultations, including clinic staff and board members, and LAO staff. Community partners were interviewed by telephone. In addition, the ACLCO organized its own consultations which culminated in a paper being submitted to LAO touching on all of the issues raised in the consultations. Some clinics also provided their own written submissions, in addition to making their voices heard at the in-person consultations.

Upon considering the consultation feedback and in light of LAO`s accountability requirements under the Legal Aid Services Act and other government policies and regulations, LAO is announcing that action will be taken this year on three priority areas: 1) the application of funding criteria, 2) piloting envelope funding, and 3) funding of the ACLCO by clinics.

Funding criteria:

The requirement that funding be issued to clinics with reference to articulated criteria is an essential step in firming up accountability of clinics to LAO, and of LAO to its funder. The implementation of clear criteria will help clinics to demonstrate their successes and identify areas requiring improvement, and make expectations clearer to assist clinics to make their case for the funding they need in order to best serve clients. The precise criteria are attached to this communication and are further enumerated in the Discussion Paper. This change will take effect for the 2010-11 fiscal year. This will give LAO Regional Vice Presidents the opportunity to work with the clinics in their regions to ensure there is a high degree of comfort and understanding of the criteria and how they need to be used in the funding application process. LAO sees the application of funding criteria as an essential step in modernizing clinic law services and continuing to build strong clinics that are responsive to client need and soundly managed.

Envelope Funding Pilot Project:

During the consultation process and in many other discussions, a number of clinics have expressed the desire to have more flexibility in how they spend their allocation from LAO to address client need in their communities. Some have also expressed the view that they had demonstrated they were sufficiently capable managers of human and financial resources to move beyond the current LAO/clinic funding and management model. Many believe the existing model involves LAO in day-to-day administrative issues that are best left to those on the front lines of clinic law services. LAO is pleased to respond to this suggestion.

In order to promote innovation and empower clinics, LAO will offer envelope funding to a select number of clinics in the 2009-10 fiscal year on a pilot basis. Envelope funding will eliminate restrictions on moving funding between salary and operating expense items, will provide clinics with increased flexibility to address many of their day-to-day administrative issues on their own without reference to LAO, and will provide financial incentives that will better enable clinics to innovate and manage their affairs independently. These pilot projects will be developed on a voluntary basis with clinics which demonstrate they are particularly well-positioned to take on this increased management responsibility. Those clinics which are interested in pursuing this option are encouraged to discuss the matter with the LAO Vice President responsible for their region.

Funding of the ACLCO:

Many participants in the consultation process stated that the ACLCO serves clinics and is accountable to them, and not to LAO. The current method of funding the ACLCO, however, does not mirror this accountability. At present, the ACLCO is funded to an overwhelming degree directly by LAO, with only a small portion coming from clinics themselves. In most other fields, associations are funded by their members. Certainly, all other associations and lobby groups relating to LAO in the other areas of law in which LAO is involved are not dependent on LAO for their financing in any way whatsoever. This ensures that they can and can be seen to act independently in the course of their on-going discussions with LAO, whose job it is to oversee the legal aid system. This arms-length relationship between associations and the oversight agency to which they relate is a sign of a mature and independent sector. The clinic system needs to ensure it is on an equal footing with other access to justice-related associations in this regard.

Beginning in fiscal year 2010-11, LAO will direct all the funding that it now gives to the ACLCO to individual clinics. At that point, clinics will have the complete and independent power to use this additional funding to support the ACLCO. This will ensure that the ACLCO will have no further dependency on LAO and will be completely owned and managed by its membership. It will further ensure that the ACLCO can continue to evolve as a strong public voice of clinic law, clinics, and the communities they serve. The 12 month interim period before this takes place will enable the ACLCO and its membership to address any resulting transition issues.

These three initiatives are key steps following the release of the LAO/Clinic relationship paper and the consultations which took place last year. Other aspects of the paper will be the subject of on-going discussions with clinics and other key partners committed to ensuring the most effective service to clinic law clients in Ontario.