Board advisory committees

Meeting of the Legal Aid Ontario mental health advisory committee on March 30, 2016

Committee members

John McCamus (Chair); Bipasha Choudhury; Lucy Costa; Shannon Down; Christel Francis; Colleen Gray; Greg Iwasiw; Heidi Longboat; Jane Mackenzie; Marion Overholt; Donald Rose; David Shannon; Marshall Swadron; Marie Taylor; John Liston (LAO Board liaison).

1. Welcome and introductions

The Chair opened the meeting and welcomed those present.

2. Minutes, October 7, 2015

The minutes of the October 7, 2015 meeting were approved.

3. LAO business planning slide deck and discussion

The Chair provided an overview of the LAO updates and proposed priorities for 2017/2018 slide deck, noting that the advisory committee process is aligned with LAO’s business planning cycle and that the spring committee meetings are primarily focused on environmental scanning.

The committee was updated on new developments at LAO.

The proposal to post advisory committee meeting minutes on the LAO website has been approved by the LAO Board, which also adopted the suggestions put forward by the committees at the fall meetings:

  • minutes will be approved by the committees prior to posting
  • confidential information will not be posted
  • comments will not be attributed to individual members and identifying information will not be included in the minutes
  • the minutes will not record attendance.

While the initial proposal involved creating two sets of minutes—a public version and a committee version—they are so similar that only one set will likely be prepared in the future. Any confidential information will be provided to the Board in a separate report. It is anticipated that a list of members and their institutional affiliations will appear on the LAO website, along with the minutes.

LAO’s new CEO, David Field, has been on the job since the beginning of January and has been doing a lot of consulting with stakeholders. He was appointed following a search process undertaken after Bob Ward announced that he would be retiring in December after nine years at LAO. David was previously LAO’s Vice President of Strategic Planning and Compliance, and had a long career at the Ministry of the Attorney General, where he was part of the team that drafted the Legal Aid Services Act.

The most important recent news story at LAO has been the new funding from the province to support expanded eligibility for legal aid. LAO submitted a business case to the province that highlighted the fact that, after two decades of frozen financial eligibility, only half as many low-income people were eligible for legal aid as had been eligible in the mid-1990s. The business case was built around an eight-to-ten-year plan that would see financial eligibility increase by six per cent each year. The province accepted the business case, and two six per cent increases have already been implemented. The third will take effect on April 1, 2016. LAO is now hopeful of a commitment to additional years of increases.

The impact of expanded eligibility has been tremendous. An anticipated 20,000 additional legal aid certificates will be issued in fiscal year 2015/16. In addition to increasing financial eligibility, LAO also expanded the range of matters for which legal aid provides coverage. Following a series of consultations, coverage was expanded in the areas of criminal, family, refugee and mental health law. For example, in criminal law, LAO moved beyond the loss of liberty test to provide coverage for vulnerable persons and persons facing serious secondary consequences if convicted of an offence. The charts in the slide deck indicate how certificate issuance has increased following the changes to financial and legal eligibility. The greatest increases have been in the area of criminal law (for minor offences), and in domestic family law (most notably for cases involving domestic violence). Youth criminal cases and child protection cases are not seeing increases.

Additional funding has also been provided to legal clinics to support expanded eligibility in the clinic system. Clinics have received approximately 20 per cent of the new funding, which represents their historically proportionate share. This year, the clinic system received $10 million in new money, including $3.3 million that was allocated on a competitive basis to support new projects that will expand clinic services.

LAO is participating in several justice system improvement initiatives, including the Attorney General’s criminal and family justice roundtables and the Ontario Court of Justice’s criminal modernization project. In February of this year, LAO’s President and CEO was invited to speak before a Senate committee which is studying delay in the criminal justice system.

LAO continues to prioritize service improvements through its priority client strategies. These strategies focus on a specific vulnerable client group or important area of service where problems have been identified, and seek to make measureable improvements, as follows:

  • The Aboriginal Justice Strategy (AJS) was LAO’s first priority strategy.

  • Following the success of the AJS, the second strategy to be developed has been the new Mental Health Strategy (MHS), which was publicly launched earlier this month.

  • A Domestic Violence Strategy is currently in development.

  • LAO’s Board has recently approved new strategies focusing on bail, racialized communities, and prison law.

  • LAO funds test case work through its Group Application and Test Case Committee and, as part of a process to improve its approach to this work, has begun to establish strategic priorities for test cases. The strategy is not intended to be limiting but rather to identify areas where test cases could be effective.

  • A prison law test case strategy has recently approved, following a consultation process.

Highlights of LAO’s business plan for 2016/17, including this year’s business plan priorities, are included in the LAO slide deck. These were discussed with LAO’s advisory committees at the fall meetings as the business plan was being prepared. Continuing to implement expanded eligibility is a major priority, along with continued focus on LAO’s priority strategies. Other priorities include panel management and increasing LAO’s use of technology. The slide deck also includes highlights of the plan’s environmental scan. LAO will be making its business plan public and it will be posted on the LAO website in the next few weeks.

Committee members provided input and advice. The views expressed below do not necessarily reflect the views of every member:

  • A move by Children’s Aid Societies to resolve as many cases as possible without going to court may be having an impact on LAO’s data showing a negligible increase in certificates issued for child protection cases.

  • The over-representation of Indigenous and racialized children in care is a matter of concern, and having data is important to examining and understanding this issue. If LAO has any data about child protection cases as they impact Indigenous and racialized families, it would be very helpful if this information could be shared. It was also suggested that the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS) may have this kind of data.

  • The prison law strategy and prison law test case strategy should include persons in remand custody and persons who are in custody awaiting mental health assessments.

  • LAO could consider consulting on and establishing a specialized panel for youth and mental health. There is a need for such a panel, particularly for Aboriginal youth. Such a panel could also benefit from reflecting and considering the diverse, unique experiences of other youth, including those that self-identify as being from racialized and LGBTQ2S communities, as well as those that have disabilities and/or reflect an intersectionality of these identities and experiences. It was noted that the needs of youth are different from those of adults.

4. Mental Health Strategy (MHS) update/discussion

LAO Policy Counsel leading the LAO MHS provided an update on the MHS and related developments at LAO.

The MHS was publicly launched in March 2016. Committee members had been consulted on the strategy’s ongoing development. The MHS is a long-term commitment for LAO, and its implementation will take place over the next several years.

The new strategy was built around three main pillars—rights, access, and sustainability. These three pillars reflect the themes and issues that were most frequently raised throughout the consultation process:

  • Rights protection and the need for advocacy: LAO heard about the needs of seniors and youth, the over-representation of First Nation, Métis and Inuit persons in the justice system, and the criminalization and re-criminalization of persons who accumulate Provincial Offences Act (POA) charges or who are set up to fail by unrealistic conditions of release. LAO’s special role in protecting the rights of people who have mental health and addictions issues was often raised, and many argued that this special role should be expanded. LAO’s eligibility expansion initiatives, introduced in June 2015, included expanding access for clients with mental illnesses.

  • Improving access: LAO heard a number of suggestions for improving LAO’s service models. These included ideas for outreach, embedded counsel, and open-ended and holistic certificates. LAO is launching community embedded counsel projects in Toronto and in Hamilton.

  • Sustainability: LAO heard about the need for mental health and addictions to become a core competency for all service providers, supported by the provision of training and tools and the sharing of information and best practices through communities of practice. LAO is aiming to pilot the first phase of its mental health training program and tools for service providers, focusing on the area of criminal law, in summer 2016. The training will later be adapted for family law and clinic law. LAO is willing to share the training program with other legal aid plans across Canada.

Work is also ongoing at LAO to develop the Mental Health Appeals Program, which supports judicial oversight and is also an investment in growing the capacity of the bar. LAO has been consulting on the development of this program with a number of groups, including the Mental Health Legal Committee, the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, the Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office and the Forensic Directors Group of Ontario. Improvements have been made to the program and key performance indicators have been developed. There will be further stakeholder engagement in April 2016. The proposed model for the program would involve all amicus appointments by the court being brought to the attention of LAO.

Committee members provided input and advice. The views expressed below do not necessarily reflect the views of every member:

  • The MHS does very good work, and LAO is to be congratulated. The response following the public launch has been very positive.

  • Training on mental health and addictions is extremely important.

  • Service providers need to be aware of intersecting issues where mental health is involved. An example of this would be a case involving involuntary status where there is domestic violence. It is also important to be aware that an accused person may also be a victim, particularly in long-term care homes. where increasing numbers of seniors are being charged with assault. These kinds of issues are surfacing more frequently now.

  • There is a tremendous opportunity to work with law students and get them involved at an early stage. Law schools are doing a lot to raise mental health awareness, and the interest is there. LAO’s training could be shared with law students.

  • Persons who are living in the community on Community Treatment Orders (CTOs) tend to be an invisible population. They rarely seek to go before the Consent and Capacity Board (CCB). The issue may be lack of awareness of their rights. One way to address this issue could be to make lawyers more accessible in the community in places like community centres.

5. Action items

  1. LAO will share its data on service levels to Aboriginal clients, based on responses to the LAO Aboriginal Self Identification Question.

  2. When LAO posts its business plan online, it will also provide a contact so that the public can ask questions.

6. Other business

None raised.