Board advisory committees

Meeting of the Legal Aid Ontario immigration and refugee law advisory committee on September 28, 2015

Committee members

John McCamus (Chair); Deyanira Benavides; Raoul Boulakia; Debbie Douglas; Rana Khan; Jennifer Hyndman; Gerri MacDonald; Toni Schweitzer; Andrea Sesum; Peter Showler; Maureen Silcoff; James McNee (LAO Board liaison)

1. Welcome and introductions

The Chair opened the meeting and welcomed those present.

2. Minutes, March 26, 2015

The minutes of the March 26, 2015 meeting were approved.

3. LAO business planning slide deck and discussion

The fall meetings provide an opportunity for LAO to talk about recent developments and take advice from its advisory committees on ideas that may appear in the next year’s business plan.

The Chair presented an overview of the Update on current and future LAO initiatives slide deck. Also, the impact of the new eligibility initiatives on certificate issuance is shown on the slide deck.

The most exciting development in many years at LAO has been the expansion of eligibility for legal aid services. LAO’s business case to the government for increased funding to support this expansion was accepted, and the province has now committed to four annual six per cent increases to the financial eligibility thresholds, which had not changed in many years. The province also confirmed that eligibility expansion could include expansion of legal eligibility, in other words expansion of the types of cases for which legal aid assistance is available. As a result, a number of legal eligibility initiatives were implemented in June 2015. As of now, LAO appears to be on track to spend the new money, which must be used to provide services to new clients or else returned to the province. The impact of the new eligibility initiatives on certificate issuance is shown on slides 5-8 of the slide deck. LAO believes that it will issue an additional 20,000 certificates this year.

A proportional share of the new funding was also provided to clinics and Student Legal Aid Services Societies (SLASS), to support them in offering increased services as a result of expanded eligibility. Following an extensive consultation with the clinics, a larger share of this funding was allocated to clinics with catchment areas that had seen greater increases in low-income residents. Meantime, LAO also continues to support legal clinics’ transformation work.

In other updates, LAO continues to work on its client strategies, as follows:

  • The first client strategy was the Aboriginal Justice Strategy (AJS). Through the AJS, LAO has been implementing a number of initiatives including the expansion of Gladue report writing services across the province.

  • The LAO Mental Health Strategy (MHS) blueprint is about to be made public in the near future.

  • Work has begun on development of a Domestic Violence Strategy (DVS) for LAO. A consultation paper for the DVS has been posted on LAO’s website.

LAO has also been working on expanding its bail services as part of its eligibility expansion, and has been developing other ideas for addressing bail system issues. Steps have been taken to improve LAO’s support for test case work through the Group Applications and Test Case Committee (GATCC).

In terms of planning for 2016/17, LAO is considering relevant environmental factors, including the fiscal situation, provincial priorities and client and service trends. New money has been provided for expanded eligibility, but both LAO and the province face financial challenges.

The priorities established for the Ministry of the Attorney General in the Premier’s mandate letter are aligned with work that LAO is doing.

Client and service trends that LAO is following include an increase in the number of refugee certificates. Although the number dropped steeply following the introduction of new legislation in 2012, the number is now climbing and may reach 7,500 this year.

Priorities for LAO in the coming year will include implementing the next six per cent increase to financial eligibility, continuing to consult on eligibility initiatives, focusing on the LAO priority client strategies, continuing to support clinic transformation, and potentially working on new initiatives related to transparency and tariff reform.

4. Refugee services update

LAO’s Director of the Refugee Law Office and Executive Lead, Refugee and Immigration Services – GTA (Greater Toronto Area), provided the committee with a status update on LAO’s refugee services priorities.

Expanded eligibility has supported new or expanded coverage in the areas of:

  • deferrals, stays, humanitarian and compassionate applications
  • Refugee Protection Division (RPD) re-openings and
  • Inquiries, where a 16-hour certificate is now available in a range of circumstances outside the normal range; LAO will confirm whether these certificates include attendance
  • Refugee Appeal Division (RAD) funding, which has now been made permanent.

LAO continues to develop training and supports for staff and private bar lawyers working in the area of refugee law. Twelve substantive law modules and a best practice manual for the RPD have been developed. Quarterly orientation sessions for new panel members are being introduced; the first is taking place in November. The private bar is showing interest in LAO’s Second Chair mentoring program.

A number of initiatives are helping to simplify LAO decision-making:

  • LAO now has one year of experience with Alternative Fee Arrangements (AFAs). Reviews and renewals are starting and LAO is also looking to expand the program.

  • LAO has made improvements to billing for translation services.

  • LAO has improved and simplified its judicial review (JR) and RAD merit assessment process.

  • An appellate panel has been created and a four-hour merit assessment opinion has been reintroduced.

Implementation of the new refugee and immigration panel standards is underway. There were 350 applicants, and 185 have been processed to date, with the rest to follow by the end of October. Those who do not meet the standards will be subject to removal. The new peer review committee, which makes recommendations on empanelment, has now met three times, and the meetings have gone well. New panel officer positions have also been created to assist LAO in panel management. Each panel officer oversees a roster of panel lawyers assigned to him or her.

LAO is reviewing some services, including interpretation and translation services, to see if they can be done better and more cost-effectively. LAO continues to roll out its test case strategy, and continues to consult and work with stakeholders.

In terms of new developments, LAO is taking feedback on how to proceed in responding to the global refugee crisis, and on issuing certificates for the Immigration and Refugee Board’s (IRB) new RPD Expedites Program.

Committee members provided input and advice as follows:

  • The Chair noted that positive comments from a committee member had been forwarded in advance of the meeting about LAO’s new peer review process and the composition of the peer review panel.

  • Members agreed that the new peer review process was working well. It was described by a member as a very useful process that will vastly improve the quality of representation for vulnerable clients. It was suggested that the peer review model could work well in other practice areas.

  • Regarding the development of potential responses to the global refugee crisis, it was suggested that LAO contact the Ottawa representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. It was also suggested that LAO consider funding mandamus applications to compel the processing of cases where there has been indefinite delay.

  • There was a suggestion that LAO consider sending lawyers from the Refugee Law Office into correctional holding centres to provide information and advice to people in detention. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has discussed this idea with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), and has already introduced a project where law students go into these centres to provide orientation and information sessions. This is a project that would be worth expanding by including lawyers who can provide legal advice.

  • Members felt that the new expedites are being introduced as a response to the public’s cry for action to be taken on the Syrian refugee crisis. It was suggested that LAO could promote efficiency and cost-savings by pressing the IRB to expand the expedited process to more cases. Expedited cases do not require hearings and are therefore less costly for LAO. However, members also advised that, under the new system, eight hours would not be sufficient for an expedite, which requires many forms to be filled out and the possibility of a need to advocate in order to bring cases into the expedited stream.

5. Consultation on advisory committee public postings

The Chair advised the committee that a proposal to post advisory committee members’ names, public versions of committee minutes, and all or some of the meeting materials on LAO’s website in the future was being considered. LAO is seeking feedback from all of the advisory committees. Any information identified as confidential would be removed from the public versions of the minutes before posting them, and comments would not be attributed to individual members. Members would be able to see the proposed public version of the minutes before LAO posts them.

While not actively opposed to the proposal, members raised several caveats. Before proceeding, LAO should be certain that it really needs to do this. It will create additional work for LAO and will not deter people who are serious about obtaining disclosure, as they will recognize that the public minutes are not the complete minutes and will seek access to versions that show where redactions were made. Members of the public will not necessarily understand the context, so comments in the minutes may be taken out of context.

Comments should not be attributed to individual members, although in some cases knowing the members’ names and affiliations could serve to identify the source of certain comments. Making committee discussions public could restrict the candidness of discussions.

Having two sets of minutes and putting edited versions on the LAO website could be misleading. LAO would need to post a disclaimer that makes it clear that these are public minutes that have been edited “pursuant to the requirements of FOI legislation”. Alternatively, LAO could create a single set of minutes that would be acceptable for posting.

If LAO wants to save work later on in the event that future FOI requests are made, it could consider preparing highlighted versions for its own use, showing what information would need to be redacted before disclosing the minutes

6. Other business

None raised.

7. Action items

  1. LAO will confirm whether the 16-hour certificates for inquiry matters including citizenship revocation and s.44 humanitarian and compassionate matters include attendance. Response: Attendance is in addition to the 16 hour certificates. Lawyers can bill their attendance time in addition to the 16 hours.

  2. LAO will contact the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to discuss potential ideas for responses to the refugee crisis as well as a project that would involve lawyers providing information and legal advice in correctional holding centres. Response: Efforts are underway to speak with the UNHCR representative and others regarding the refugee crisis and providing information and legal advice in correctional holding centres.

  3. LAO will report back on what it hears from all of its advisory committees about the public posting proposal.