Ottawa

Legal charity running out of money, time

An Ottawa legal clinic that provides free advice to litigants in civil matters who may otherwise go unrepresented has run out of money, forcing its closure as soon as next month.

Pro Bono Ontario dispensed free legal advice to 18K clients last year

Lori Shepherd turned to Pro Bono Ontario after her husband died without leaving a will, setting off a battle over life insurance payments. (supplied )

An Ottawa legal clinic that provides free advice to litigants in civil matters who may otherwise go unrepresented has run out of money, forcing its closure as soon as next month.

Last year, 18,000 people sought legal counsel at Pro Bono Ontario's (PBO) three offices, two in Toronto and one in Ottawa. Ottawa's office assisted 2,613 people in 2017.

Lawyers volunteer their time to staff the Ottawa office, located at the provincial court house on Elgin Street. Most of their clients are referred by the courts, and come seeking help with such problems as wrongful dismissal, landlord/tenant disputes and estate matters.  

PBO received a year's worth of emergency funding from the Law Foundation of Ontario to continue operating in 2018, but that lifeline is about to expire. The registered charity is looking for $500,000 from the province to continue paying the bills, including two paid staff who help manage the Ottawa office.

Gratitude, relief

Lori Shepherd, 45, turned to PBO after her husband died of cancer in January 2017. He hadn't left a will, and she'd left her job to care for him.

Shepherd found herself locked in battle with the executor of her husband's estate to get a share of his $200,000 life insurance policy to help raise their two children, six and 13.

I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude and relief that somebody could hear me, that somebody could feel my struggle.- Lori Shepherd, PBO client

Initially she hired a lawyer, but said all she ended up with was a $3,000 credit card bill. That's when she turned to PBO.

In June 2017, Shepherd went to the Pro-Bono office in Ottawa and staff made no promises but said they'd try and find the right lawyer to help her. 

"I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude and relief that somebody could hear me, that somebody could feel my struggle," she said. "Previous to that I'd felt so alone and confused."

PBO referred her to a lawyer at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP who eventually helped her avoid a civil suit and arranged for monthly payments to her children.

"As much as anything I just needed it to be over. The amount of anxiety that I felt through the whole process was overwhelming," Shepherd said. "I felt so grateful when he told me I'd get the money."

'It broke my heart'

Ottawa lawyer David Scott helped create Pro Bono Ontario. Now in his 80s, Scott still volunteers once a month at PBO's Ottawa office. 

"The personal satisfaction is enormous," he said. "Last week I helped five people and I walked away euphoric, but then I heard we're going to have to close and it broke my heart"  he said 

Scott said the lawyers who volunteer at PBO help clients draw up documents and prepare their arguments for court.

"These people are desperate, and before, without this office, they had nowhere to go," he said. 

According to PBO, an independent study showed that in 2015-16 the charity provided legal advice worth $5.76 million to unrepresented litigants

Litigants who show up to court unprepared and unrepresented cause costly delays, Scott said. He believes the province has a responsibility to fund PBO through its statutory obligation to provide every citizen with access to justice.

"It's an absolutely critical service, and we're talking about enormously disadvantaged citizens," Scott said. "The time has come for the attorney general and ... the Law Society to face up to these responsibilities."

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