For some low-income people in Ontario, it could be a lifeline.

A new toll-free hotline operated by the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic (CSALC) went live Sunday, providing free legal consultations in five different languages for non-English speakers. 

 "We know how much need there is out there," said Avvy Go, director of the CSALC and lawyer specializing in what's informally called "poverty law."

The clinic has been operating on Dundas Street West in downtown Toronto for nearly 30 years. New funding from Legal Aid Ontario allowed it to open its services to low-income Chinese and Southeast Asian people in every corner of the province.

"Contrary to public opinion, there is a lot of poverty within the Chinese, Vietnamese as well as in the Laotian and Cambodian community," Go explained. 

"The challenges that they face in part arise from their low income status, but also because they are a racialized group."

Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic Toronto

The clinic has been open in downtown Toronto for nearly three decades. Now it will be able to serve clients from across Ontario. (Courtesy of Avvy Go)

Though the clinic has unofficially served clients from outside the GTA for years, the hotline will provide a consistent outlet for those in smaller cities and rural areas. 

"They may not be able to access linguistically or culturally appropriate legal services in their community," said Go.

Permanent funding means more help

The grant of $100,000 helped cover costs of the hotline and two new staff members — one lawyer who speaks Mandarian and Cantonese and one who speaks Vietnamese —  as well as new community outreach. 

According to Go, most of the clinic's work is related in some way to immigration or employment. 

About a third of the cases involve immigration law, whether its someone trying to bring family members to Canada, gain legal status as a resident of Ontario or fight a removal order.

Many of the clinic's clients work low-wage jobs and face exploitation from employers, as well.

"Some of them don't even get minimum wage pay, or are being cheated out of pay," Go said. 

Of course, there are many other challenges that low-income non-English speakers face. Issues with landlords, access to government services and navigating life in a new country are all problems the clinic helps clients solve. It has even assisted people scammed out of savings in "informal financial agreements" that are common in some parts of Asia, such as the syndicated mortgages that CBC Toronto investigated this year.

The clinic hopes with its new capacity, it will be able to take on more cases.

"At least it will allow some of the people living outside of Toronto access to legal services in their first language and we hope that will benefit many of our community members," Go said. 

The funding is permanent, so as long as the clinic exists, the hotline will be open, she added.

"From over the years we know how much need is out there from our community that we're not able to meet."

The toll-free number is 1-844-971-9674.

With files from Muriel Draaisma