Board advisory committees

Meeting of the Legal Aid Ontario French language services advisory committee to the Board on October 5, 2015

Committee members

John McCamus (Chair); Patrice Cormier; Marie-Claude Gaudreault; Josée Guindon; Madeleine Hébert; Ayana Carla Hutchinson; Marie-Josée Lafleur; Andrée-Anne Martel; Christophe Mutonji; Vicky Ringuette; Christian St-Onge; Leonie Tchatat; Aly Alibhai (LAO Board liason).

1. Welcome and introductions

The Chair opened the meeting and welcomed those present.

2. Minutes, March 31, 2015

The minutes of the March 31, 2015 meeting were adopted as amended.

3. LAO business planning slide deck and discussion

The Chair presented highlights of the LAO slide deck, beginning with updates on LAO initiatives. The expansion of eligibility for legal aid services and the provision of new funding by the province to support this expansion is a very important story at LAO.

Previous to the recent increases, the eligibility standard for legal aid was extremely low, and had not changed in nearly 20 years. LAO submitted a business case to the province seeking funding to support a series of increases that would bring eligibility up to the standard of the low income measure over a period of approximately eight to 10 years. The government responded to this request and, in addition, approved LAO’s proposal to expand legal as well as financial eligibility in order to make more types of cases eligible for legal aid assistance. LAO calculates that it will issue an additional 20,000 certificates this year as a result of expanded eligibility.

In line with historical allocations to the clinic system, 20 per cent of the new eligibility expansion funding was provided to legal clinics and Student Legal Aid Services Societies (SLASS) to support expanded eligibility for clinic and SLASS services. There were consultations with the clinics and SLASS to develop priorities, which included addressing funding imbalances by providing more funds to clinics that have larger low-income populations in their catchment areas.

Clinics around the province are continuing to work on transformation projects. A large transformation project that was proposed by a committee of clinic staff in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) did not proceed due to lack of consensus, but smaller groups of GTA clinics are now getting together to discuss other ideas. LAO continues to provide support to clinic transformation.

The Attorney General has established a Justice Round Table, along with two sub-tables focusing on family and criminal law, and LAO is involved in this initiative along with other stakeholders.

LAO continues to emphasize its client strategies:

  • The first was the Aboriginal Justice Strategy (AJS). Current initiatives for the AJS include expansion of Gladue report writing services and supporting local services in communities.

  • The second client strategy to be developed at LAO was the Mental Health Strategy (MHS). Some MHS initiatives are now underway and it is anticipated that the formal MHS blueprint will be released to the public in the near future.

  • In February 2015, the LAO Board approved the development of a third client strategy, the Domestic Violence Strategy (DVS). LAO staff have received domestic violence awareness training and a public consultation paper on the development of the strategy has been posted on the LAO website at the link provided in the slide deck.

  • Most recently, LAO has begun work on the development of a Racialized Communities Strategy (RCS), in line with its strategies to support other vulnerable communities. A presentation on the RCS was recently made to the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, and LAO received a request to make its presentation available in French, reflecting the fact that there is strong Francophone representation in the community.

LAO has also been focusing its efforts on issues relating to bail. Recently, new and expanded bail services were implemented as part of eligibility expansion. LAO has developed some additional ideas and would like to do more to help to address bail system problems, perhaps working together with the Ministry of the Attorney General.

In addition, LAO is interested in developing a plan to improve services to prison inmates. The Queen’s Prison Law Clinic has received additional funding and is also expanding its services.

Test case work is an area of focus for both LAO and clinics. LAO has made improvements to the support it provides to test cases through its Group Applications and Test Case Committee.

LAO has also provided $100,000 in funding over two years to support the investigative work of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC). Wrongful Conviction Day was held in Toronto on October 2, 2015, to celebrate the accomplishments of AIDWYC, and their work is impressive.

In drafting its business plan for 2016/17, LAO will take into account environmental factors, including the fiscal situation. There is good financial news due to the new funding for expanded eligibility, but there are also challenges ahead for both LAO and the Ministry of the Attorney General as the province works to eliminate its deficit.

Provincial priorities will be taken into account, and the business plan will demonstrate LAO’s alignment with those priorities.

Client and service trends will also be reflected in the business plan’s environmental scan. A notable trend is the declining number of criminal charges coming before the Ontario Court of Justice. At its last retreat, the LAO Board heard a presentation on this subject from the University of Toronto’s Professor Tony Doob. Although many people believe the cause to be the reduction in the percentage of young males in the population, Professor Doob’s work does not link the decline directly to demographics.

Priorities for 2016/17 will include continuing to implement expanded eligibility. Whether or not a second round of expanded legal eligibility initiatives can be introduced will depend on having more data about the cost of the first round of initiatives.

In the year ahead, LAO will also continue to develop and implement its strategies to improve support for vulnerable clients. Support for clinic transformation will be ongoing, and LAO will continue to consult with stakeholders and improve its relationship with the private bar.

Other business plan initiatives for next year may include a focus on transparency and a review of potential tariff reform items.

4. FLS update and discussion

LAO’s program manager, French Language Services (FLS), presented the FLS update to the committee.

LAO continues to promote FLS awareness, training and capacity-building. Recruitment of bilingual staff is important, and the development of French language skills is encouraged through various courses and options for learning French. Work is ongoing with LAO’s Human Resources department to integrate French into training for LAO staff. This year 14 LAO lawyers are registered in the Ministry of the Attorney General’s (MAG) French Language Institute for Professional Development (FLIPD) training course for criminal lawyers. The course will include an LAO-specific workshop.

Another priority is the enhancement of FLS services. With five-year financing from the Canada-Ontario project, LAO is working with its partners, the Association of French Speaking Jurists (AJEFO), Justice for Children and Youth (JUST) and the Centre Francophone de Toronto (CFT), to improve access to FLS legal services for Ontario youth. Project initiatives have included conducting surveys of high school students to learn more about needs, and developing promotional materials to create awareness.

Legal clinics are making significant progress in being able to offer services in French. LAO is working with clinics to support them in hiring more bilingual staff, including paralegals and articling students.

LAO has been participating in the Access to Justice pilot project at the Ottawa courthouse. The project came from a recommendation of the Bench and Bar Steering Committee, in response to the Access to Justice in French report. This report is posted on MAG’s website.

Integration of FLS into LAO planning and the implementation of plans continues to be emphasized. Two training sessions on integrating FLS have been held for planning managers at LAO. Structures have been put in place to ensure that the right questions are being asked at the beginning of each planning process.

Accountability and consultation are important to LAO’s FLS focus. LAO is working on increasing its capacity to measure provision of services in French and progress in making active offer of services in French. Consultation with the francophone community is important to the development and implementation of all of LAO’s client strategies, as well as to LAO’s support for clinic transformation, since the needs being addressed may be the same but the resource requirements and approaches may differ. Environmental scans and data collection help to support LAO in these areas as well.

Looking ahead, LAO will continue to emphasize capacity building, recruitment of bilingual staff and integration of FLS into the planning and implementation of eligibility expansion initiatives and legal aid services for vulnerable clients. LAO will also continue to support the province’s plan for FLS in the justice sector. Markham has been named the 26th designated area under the French Language Services Act (FLSA), and LAO will be part of the justice sector team responding to this new designation. LAO will also continue to work with its stakeholders, partners and the legal clinics in the year to come.

There was a question about the role that members play and the scope that they have for providing input and advice. The materials provided to the committee could give the impression that LAO’s planning is a fait accompli. The Chair responded that LAO is looking for advice and input from committee members, both on existing and planned future initiatives. The business plan has not been written yet and nothing is set in stone. LAO needs to hear from members if it is missing something or going in the wrong direction. If members have feedback or comments they would like to provide, they are encouraged do so at the meetings and, between meetings, comments, questions or feedback may be directed to LAO policy counsel supporting the advisory committees.

Committee members provided input and advice:

  • It was suggested that LAO look into amending the forms that per diem duty counsel use when serving clients at courthouses so that that there is a box to tick if the client wishes to receive services in French. The forms that are used by duty counsel in Hamilton do not have a place where this information can be captured. This would be an easy way of allowing LAO to capture how many duty counsel clients would prefer to receive service in French.

  • There was a question about the status of contracts to finalize the conversion of the legal clinic French-language telephone summary legal advice service from project to program status. The change will be achieved through addenda to the existing contracts of the participating clinics, and the drafts are currently under review.

  • It was reported that Canada Post’s move from home delivery to the use of community mailboxes has been having an adverse impact on low-income clients who move frequently and for whom getting a box in the new community mailboxes is not a top priority. These people are not receiving their mail. Instead of returning the undelivered mail to the senders, Canada Post has been letting it stack up in the office, with the result that the senders think it has been delivered. If, for example, a landlord’s notice to vacate premises is not delivered, the client will not know that the sheriff is coming to change the locks.

  • Problems with accessing legal aid services in the Ottawa area were raised. For those who live in Ontario but who are arrested on the Québec side, no access to the LAO call centre to make an application is available through the toll-free 1-800 number. For lawyers whose offices are located on the Québec side and who have clients coming to them to make a legal aid application, the same problem exists.

  • Members reported that duty counsel in Ottawa courthouses are no longer taking in-person applications, and that this is causing problems. Criminal law in-custody clients end up being incarcerated longer because they do not know how to make an application and are being sent back to detention. Family law clients also face delays because they have to apply over the telephone instead of getting advice on their application from duty counsel, and sometimes the call centre issues them the wrong certificate and they have to start over. Clients with mental illness are particularly affected because they are not able to navigate the application process without in-person assistance.

  • Call centre wait times were identified as a problem. A 45-minute wait time is reportedly the average now, and a wait time of 90 minutes had been reported to a committee member.

5. Consultation on advisory committee public postings

The committee was consulted about a proposal to post information about the advisory committees on the LAO website. Recently, LAO received an information request for past minutes of one of the advisory committees and these have now been posted on the website by LAO, as is usual with freedom of information requests.

The Board is now considering, subject to feedback from the committees, making all committee minutes and other information about the committees available to the public on a going-forward basis. The information would be posted on a dedicated webpage on the site and would be likely to include the committee terms of reference, meeting materials such as the slide deck, and a public version of the meeting minutes that would include members’ names.

Members responded positively to the proposal. It was felt that posting advisory committee information was within the spirit of the push towards more open government. A member noted that transparency is a key word today for every ministry, municipality and agency.

Members agreed that confidential information should be protected and that comments should not be attributed to individuals. As well, it was suggested that the public versions of committee minutes should simply list the membership of the committee, and not indicate whether individual members were present at meetings or had sent regrets.

6. Action items

LAO will follow up with the district director general in Hamilton about using the duty counsel form to capture data on duty counsel clients who request services in French.

7. Other business

None raised.