LAO’s embedded lawyer program at Moss Park

Published: October 25, 2022

By Maria McLoughlin

We know that LAO cares about providing access to justice for low-income Ontarians, but one of the lesser-known ways that we provide that access is through embedded lawyer programs. Sound Times Support Services in the Moss Park area of Toronto has been in a medical-legal partnership with LAO since 2016, where it offers legal services in tandem with the agency’s mental health services.

What is an embedded lawyer program?

Embedded lawyer programs allow community agencies (like mental health clinics) to act as a liaison between their visitors and an LAO lawyer. At Sound Times, visitors are screened for multiple legal issues, and eligible clients are then given direct access to an LAO staff lawyer.

What are the benefits?

Lawyers can address the underlying problems that brought an accused person in contact with the criminal justice system. Often, a client may have multiple legal matters that may also need to be addressed. Overall, the program streamlines the legal process for clients, reduces the negative impacts of being involved in the criminal justice sector, and increases their trust in the legal system.

More benefits at Sound Times by the numbers:

  • Over the past year, 22 clients had their charges withdrawn, resulting in $502,964 in savings in court costs alone.
  • 24 clients were issued certificates through a fast-tracked process, decreasing wait times for processing and allowing clients to obtain private counsel as soon as possible.
  • Over the past year, 12 clients maintained their housing, representing cost savings of over $70,000 to the City of Toronto.

We heard from Program Lead Amy Slotek, the on-site lawyer at Sound Times, who explained more about the program and why it is meaningful to our work here at LAO.

How does this program help clients with both mental health needs and legal issues?

Amy: Many clients who manage mental health disabilities have been the target of long-standing discrimination, social exclusion and violence. They are often denied equal access to justice and are mistrustful of the (in)justice system and those who work within it.

This program builds a critical bridge between LAO and this vulnerable client group because trust and rapport are enhanced in this setting.

This program has additionally been designed to meet the legal and non-legal needs of vulnerable LAO clients, many of whom are experiencing homelessness. A client, for example, may meet with me (the LAO Staff Lawyer onsite) to discuss their criminal charges and get support to find a shelter or crisis bed that night. They may also meet with the onsite psychiatrist, engage in drop-in addictions counseling or get clothing. Co-locating these services at one community access point means that clients do not have to choose between dealing with their urgent legal and non-legal needs that day. They can address them all in one location.

What type of people might you work with in this setting?

Amy: The majority of the clients that I work with have multiple legal issues that they are trying to manage, and they may not even know that the issues they are struggling with are legal issues with remedies. When I meet with a new client, I engage in a comprehensive intake process to ensure that their legal needs are met early on and that they are connected to the right LAO services.

The majority of the clients I work with are also homeless. Homeless residents, many of whom are racialized and Indigenous, are over-criminalized and over-incarcerated. Conversely, criminal justice involvement often results in homelessness. These clients are stuck in a vicious and traumatic cycle.

In a city like Toronto with not enough shelter beds and a shortage of affordable housing, this can mean sleeping on the street. It’s a sad reality that people die on the street in the city every year and that these are preventable deaths.

This is one of the reasons that I try to preserve people’s housing. For example, a client might retain me to help them fight their criminal charges and defend them in an eviction hearing at the Landlord and Tenant Board. It is quite common for people with criminal charges (which have allegedly occurred in their residence) to face eviction. Some of the most meaningful cases I have worked on have been for clients who have resolved their criminal charges and preserved their housing.

Why is this program meaningful to you?

Amy: This program is extremely meaningful to me because it extends LAO services to clients who really need legal help but have struggled to obtain legal services through traditional service models.

As a whole, the justice system fails to take into consideration the needs of individuals managing mental health disabilities and those struggling with homelessness. This program was designed with their needs in mind and is evaluated by service users on an annual basis. This is additionally meaningful to me because we are accountable to the client group that we provide services to.

Read the Embedded Lawyer Program annual report to discover more about who this program helps, how this program helps, and why LAO is involved.