Section IV: Notable Achievements By LAO

I. MANAGING THE TRANSITION

In April 1999, Legal Aid Ontario assumed responsibility for administering legal aid services from the Law Society of Upper Canada. Over the last eight years, LAO has matured as an organization, and has demonstrated its ability to manage the legal aid system that it inherited. I do not wish to under-emphasise the significant administrative challenges LAO faced in the early years, and it is to be commended for keeping the system on a stable footing during this period.

The transition from two, separately managed programs (the certificate and clinic programs) within the Law Society into a single, publicly accountable non-profit corporation was a challenging and complex task. The Honourable Sidney B. Linden, as the first Chair, and Angela Longo, then President and CEO, established a board of directors with appropriate subcommittees, developed governance procedures, revised the finance structure, and formalized the agency relationship with the Ministry of the Attorney General, including the implementation of legislated budgeting, business planning, and reporting requirements. They also implemented a multi-year technological update project to replace LAO's outdated and multiple technology systems with a single, more flexible, integrated system.

LAO acknowledges that it has been more innovative over the years in its internal administration than in external service delivery. Nevertheless, there have been some notable achievements in several areas, which I have grouped into the following categories: Service Delivery; System Improvements for Clients; System Improvements for Service Providers; and Quality Assurance.

II. SERVICE DELIVERY

There has been very little variation in LAO's funding allocations to its service delivery programs since 1999: the percentage of funding for certificates, clinics, research and innovation has remained the same; the percentage of funding for administration has gone down slightly; and the percentage of funding to duty counsel has increased slightly.

*A chart showing the breakdown of these expenditures, in constant dollars, is attached as an appendix to this section.

The certificate system has remained stable during this period, with 109,101 certificates issued in 2006-07, compared with 107,697 in 1999-00. It is the delivery of services by full-time employed staff that has been the most significant change in the past eight years. The complement of lawyers in staff offices has risen from 16 in 1999-00 to 26 in 2006-07, the number of staff duty counsel has risen dramatically, from 36 to 136, and the total number of clinic staff lawyers rose from 176 to 242.

a) Staff Offices

As was envisioned by the McCamus Report, the Legal Aid Ontario staff offices have provided LAO with an opportunity to experiment with new ways of delivering legal aid services. LAO currently has seven staff offices, one for refugee law, three for family law and three for criminal law.

i) Refugee Law Office

The Refugee Law Office (RLO) was started as a pilot project in 1994, with a dual mandate to contribute to the overall quality of refugee legal aid and to operate cost-effectively. The RLO represents refugee claimants who have a legal aid certificate, at refugee determination hearings before the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). If the hearing is not successful, the RLO can seek a review of the IRB's decision with an application to the Federal Court of Canada. RLO staff are multi-lingual to help better serve the needs of their clientele. In the RLO the staff speak English, French, Spanish, Farsi (Persian), Azari, Turkish, Amharic, Arabic, Albanian, Italian and Tigrigna.

A 1998 evaluation of the pilot project concluded that the RLO provides consistently high quality services, but that the cost-per-case was higher than for judicare. Recommendations to improve cost-effectiveness were implemented, and the RLO was evaluated again in 2000-01. The RLO's caseload in 1999-00 was 280 cases. The second review found that cost-effectiveness had improved, and the RLO was made permanent in 2002. The RLO is well regarded by the private refugee law bar. The Refugee Lawyers' Association advocated in their submission to me that the RLO receive funding to take on additional responsibilities. The RLO has 6 lawyers and 4 paralegals currently on staff, and in 2006-07 the office accepted 157 legal aid certificates.

ii) Family Law Offices

In 1999, Legal Aid Ontario initiated a pilot project of three Family Law Offices 1 (FLOs) to address the service gaps created by the funding cuts of the 1990s. FLOs were opened in Toronto, Ottawa and Thunder Bay. In 2002 the three offices had an average caseload of 336 active files per office. An evaluation of the FLOs released in August 2002 concluded that the quality of service provided was high, but that in order to remain cost-effective, the FLOs would have to maintain sufficient caseloads (i.e. an influx of new cases), and would have to restrict their range (e.g. not provide uncontested divorces) and amount of services to those provided by private lawyers working on certificate. The three FLOs currently employ 13 lawyers and 11 paralegals. In 2006-07 the FLOs accepted a total of 865 legal aid certificates.

iii) Criminal Law Offices

In 2004, the federal government's Investment Fund for Criminal Aid Renewal provided funding for Legal Aid Ontario's Criminal Law Office pilot project. LAO established three Criminal Law Offices (CLOs) as pilot projects in 2004-05, located in Brampton, Barrie and Ottawa. The CLOs were designed to provide a cost-effective way of addressing the needs of clients in specialized service areas such as mental health, youth justice and Aboriginal law. They provide a range of services using a mix of certificates, staff lawyers, duty counsel and partnerships with private lawyers. CLOs also serve clients who do not receive legal aid certificates because their matter is unlikely to result in incarceration, but who face serious consequences from conviction. They also provide representation in matters where there is a significant public interest affecting a particular community. The CLOs therefore fill gaps in client services and expand service options for clients. The three offices are currently staffed with 7 lawyers and 3 paralegals, and in 2006-07 they accepted a total of 157 legal aid certificates. The CLOs caseloads have continued to grow, with the Brampton and Barrie offices carrying higher caseloads than the Ottawa office.

The CLOs have been evaluated by a series of three reports, the last of which was recently concluded. Generally, the evaluations have found that although the CLOs have lower fees billed for each individual case, the overall total cost of running the offices, including the costs of outreach and administrative overhead, as well as the costs of handling specific cases, is higher on a per-case basis than the fees billed by private lawyers on a comparable certificate case. There clearly continues to be a considerable shortfall between the billings accrued for case-specific activity and the total expenditures on the CLOs. When the value of various non-case specific services is added, the shortfall between the computed value for services and total expenditures is narrowed, but not appreciably. The total value of services provided by the CLOs has not in any year exceeded two-thirds of the expenditures of the offices. These reports demonstrate the difficulty - under the existing tariff - of a public or private office dedicated solely to providing legal aid services to this clientele being able to generate enough fees to cover expenditures.

b) Duty Counsel

Duty counsel are lawyers who provide legal advice, representation, and other legal assistance to unrepresented litigants during family and criminal court appearances. Historically, duty counsel services were provided by panels of per diem lawyers (i.e., lawyers in private practice who are paid an hourly rate and work on a scheduled rotation) in most courts across the province. Duty counsel services include conducting show cause hearings and assisting in guilty pleas and sentencing in criminal courts, arguing interim motions and attending case conferences in family courts, obtaining adjournments, preparing and reviewing court documents, negotiating settlements and consent orders. Duty counsel also provide information on how to apply for a legal aid certificate or how to appeal the refusal of a legal aid certificate, and in some smaller locations, will also take legal aid applications. Duty counsel do not provide representation at trial or participate in trial preparation conferences. Family court duty counsel cannot assist with issues of property or divorce; criminal court duty counsel cannot assist in guilty pleas where a penitentiary sentence is foreseeable.

Most duty counsel services offered at family court require a financial eligibility test to be met except for summary advice and simple adjournments. In criminal court, the financial eligibility test is required only when the potential client is an adult who is not in custody who wishes to enter a guilty plea.

The McCamus Report recommended that the role of duty counsel in both criminal and family courts be expanded, and LAO has quadrupled the complement of staff duty counsel over the past eight years. In 1999, LAO implemented Family Law Expanded Duty Counsel (EDC) pilot projects in London, Hamilton and Oshawa. The EDC offices use a mix of private and staff lawyers, including full-time supervisory duty counsel, to provide continuous services to clients, including representation in court, maintaining files, drafting documents, and developing strategies to resolve cases early without court hearings. These offices allow duty counsel to focus their time on clients' cases while support staff provide extensive service assisting with client documents and files. Criminal EDCs were also established in Brampton and Newmarket. The early success of these pilots resulted in the expansion of full-time supervisory duty counsel and Duty Counsel Offices (DCOs) to a total of 65 locations (including both family and criminal law sites).

Supervisory duty counsel supervise and co-ordinate the services and training of per diem duty counsel, act as a liaison between the court and LAO, and fulfill the normal functions of a duty counsel in court. This initiative has led to the development of a more organized and efficient duty counsel infrastructure and has enhanced the quality of services provided to clients. In 2006-07 the duty counsel program provided a total of 764,675 assists throughout Ontario.

LAO has made DCOs the preferred model for providing duty counsel services. Under the supervision of a supervisory duty counsel, services are provided by a mix of per diem lawyers, staff duty counsel (i.e. full-time employees of LAO), and in locations where demand warrants, administrative or paralegal support. A 2002 evaluation of the Family EDC pilots found that there were fewer adjournments and more settlements at earlier stages in the proceedings. A multi-year evaluation of a sample of the criminal law DCOs (in Brampton, Newmarket, Milton, Hamilton and North York) is currently underway. Preliminary findings indicate that the supervisory duty counsel has a key role to play in ensuring the offices' success; that having full-time staff lawyers as well as staff paralegals has a positive impact on quality of service and cost-effectiveness; and that in order to maximize cost-effectiveness, staff lawyers should be used as much as possible in place of per diem lawyers.

In addition to the DCO program, LAO has established an advice lawyer program to provide family law services in Family Law Information Centres (FLICs) operated by the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, and in numerous other community centres accessible to clients. Advice lawyers provide out of court assistance to unrepresented persons in approximately 130 locations across the province. Generally, they provide legal advice, draft and/or review legal documents and provide some negotiation services for financially eligible clients.

LAO has also developed specialized duty counsel for Domestic Violence, Mental Health, Gladue and Drug Treatment Courts. These specialized duty counsel are experienced in the issues and procedures unique to these courts.

c) Clinics

LAO has expanded the clinic system to ensure community legal clinic coverage in all areas of the province, as recommended by the McCamus Report. This expansion brings the total number of clinics to 80, including 18 specialty clinics offering services in a particular area of law or in the legal needs of a specific client group. New clinics includes five general service clinics, two new French language clinics, two new specialty clinics dealing with landlord-tenant and income security law, and one new ethno/cultural clinic for the South Asian community.

d) Pilot Projects for Aboriginal People

Legal Aid Ontario has begun to experiment with innovative modes of service delivery for Aboriginal people, in particular, in recognition of their overrepresentation in the justice system. In the summer of 2007, LAO began consultations on a strategy for improving services to Aboriginal clients. At present, LAO is providing funding for two culturally specific pilot projects.

The Aboriginal Healing Circles pilot project tests the use of traditional Aboriginal community circles to divert Aboriginal people who have come into conflict with the law away from the mainstream court system. The healing circles are administered by the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres, and funded by LAO, the Ministry of the Attorney General and the Federal Department of Justice. The program operates out of five Indian Friendship Centres and one reserve community. LAO also provides funding for the Nishnawbe-Aski Legal Services Corporation to conduct the Talking Together pilot project, aimed at testing the use of community circle principles to deal with the higher numbers of child protection cases in northern Ontario Aboriginal communities. The program uses traditional Aboriginal restorative justice principles, together with court processes, to reduce the number of Aboriginal children who are removed from their communities by increasing the capacity of these communities to minimize the risks to children and resolve protection issues.

III. SYSTEM IMPROVEMENTS FOR CLIENTS

LAO has examined ways to make applications for legal aid and access to the legal aid system easier for potential clients. The Homeless Access and Referral Partnership Project (HARP) provides access clinics at five drop-ins and community centres that are frequently used by homeless people. Homeless individuals can apply to the legal aid certificate program, or be referred to a clinic or other appropriate service depending on their situation.

LAO has also introduced the use of video technology to take legal aid applications from clients who are in custody. As a result, clients can retain and instruct a lawyer immediately and get the matter before the courts faster. Ninety-eight per cent of clients have expressed satisfaction with this service. Video technology is now used in 12 locations across the province. It has provided faster access to LAO services, improved services and reduced costs.

Most recently, LAO has begun a pilot project to dramatically expand the locations where an individual may apply for a legal aid certificate. LAO has assessed its financial and legal requirements for certificates and developed a profile of the applications that are very likely to be approved. For example, individuals who participate in Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program are always financially eligible; clients whose case involves a child protection matter, a refugee claim or a criminal charge with a likelihood of jail time are always legally eligible. Based on this profile, LAO restructured and simplified its online application to enable people other than LAO's applications assessment officers to complete the process. The goal of the Simplified Online Application Portal (SOAP) pilot is to enable lawyers and community agency staff to complete a client's application over the Internet. If the client meets the clear requirements in the simplified application, they will be provided with an immediate online confirmation of eligibility for a legal aid certificate. This will allow their lawyer to start work on their case as soon as they receive this confirmation, without the client ever having to attend in person at a legal aid office. LAO estimates that 40 per cent of its clients benefit from this simplified process.

IV. SYSTEM IMPROVEMENTS FOR SERVICE PROVIDERS

LAO has developed a number of technological innovations that reduce administrative burdens both for certificate lawyers and for the system itself. Technology has enabled improvements in billing and payment, in sharing legal research, and in incarcerated client meetings.

The Legal Aid Online system allows certificate lawyers to submit their accounts online and also allows for real-time information sharing between LAO offices. The result is that lawyers find the system more efficient, and clients are more efficiently served by having their file follow them through the system. As of December 2006, 84 per cent of certificate accounts and 94 per cent of duty counsel accounts were billed online. LAO also established direct deposit for lawyers doing legal aid work. The ease and speed with which lawyers are paid by LAO provides an additional incentive for them to do legal aid work.

LAO's legal research department provides fully electronic support and research assistance to lawyers who do legal aid work. LAO LAW is the only Web-based legal aid research service of its kind in Canada. It has been expanded to include a monthly netletter, a weekly summary of case law targeted to specific areas of the law and a priority telephone hotline service for duty counsel lawyers.

Access: Defence is an initiative developed by the Video Remand and Bail Project of the Ministry of the Attorney General and the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, and supported by Legal Aid Ontario. The project is a new teleconferencing system that gives lawyers the ability to book teleconferences with their in-custody clients at select correctional facilities in Ontario. Lawyers can call from anywhere, seven days a week to talk to in-custody clients, avoiding the time and costs associated with travelling to correctional facilities.

V. QUALITY ASSURANCE

Maintaining the high quality of legal aid services in the province is a key part of LAO's statutory mandate. LAO has developed a number of measures to improve quality.

a) Quality Service Office

The Quality Service Office (QSO) was established in 2003 to support excellence in providing high-quality legal aid service to clients. The QSO develops quality standards, assists in developing performance measures, and prepares orientation material for LAO's programs.

b) Client Service Measures

LAO implemented and maintained client service measures reporting for LAO and clinic staff. In 2005-06, LAO adopted the "Common Measurements Tool", a standardized survey instrument developed by the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service and widely used for benchmarking in publicly funded programs at the municipal, provincial and federal level.

c) Minimum Panel Standards

LAO has worked with the bar and other key stakeholders to develop minimum standards for legal aid panel membership, along with appropriate supports for lawyers who do legal aid work. Standards have been implemented for refugee, criminal, family and mental health law legal aid panels, as well as for duty counsel. LAO ensures that continuing legal education (a requirement of the minimum standards) is available and accessible to panel members.

d) Mentoring Program

LAO implemented a new mentoring program for lawyers in 2006. Lawyers can request one-on-one mentoring or can submit a mentoring request online for a response within 48 hours.

e) Best Practices

LAO developed best practices tools and templates for clinics and student legal aid service societies to assist them in developing policies that meet their individual needs while improving the quality of their services.

f) Complaints Process

LAO has developed complaints process standards for clinics, to ensure that all complaints are responded to appropriately. LAO also has a Complaints Office to address complaints about its own services or the services of a lawyer under a legal aid certificate. The LAO complaints process provides an opportunity for a review by LAO's General Counsel.


SECTION IV - APPENDIX

Back to report.

LAO Expenditures (000's) in 2007 Dollars
Certificate Program1999-002006-07
Criminal$74,097$99,141
Family$40,674$50,968
Immigration and Refugee$12,009$16,866
Other Civil$5,949$6,229
Settlement Conferences$270$133
$132,999$173,337
Area Office Services$21,450$24,499
Family Law Office$2,359
Refugee Law Office$819$893
$22,269$27,751
Certificate Program + Area Offices$155,268$201,088
Duty Counsel
Duty Counsel Fees and Disbursements$22,354$34,557
Expanded Duty Counsel$612
$22,354$35,169
Clinic Program and Special Services
Clinic law services$45,566$58,570
Nishnawbe-Aski allocation$1,524$1,648
Student Legal Aid Societies$3,025$2,990
$50,116$63,208
Service Innovation Projects
Pilot Projects$2,643$1,669
Other$91$1,136
$2,733$2,804
Service Provider Support
Research Facility$2,328$2,103
Administration
Provincial Office$27,616$25,526
Amortization expenses$3,735
Other$2,262
$29,877$29,261
TOTAL$262,677$333,634

  1. The Divorce Law Office Pilot Project was started in 1995, and its services were rolled into the Family Law Offices.

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