Free civil legal clinics to stay open through 2019 after getting $525K from Feds, legal community
Courthouse-based help centres in Toronto and Ottawa were set to close their doors for lack of funding
A program that gets lawyers to volunteer their time to help people navigate the civil court system has been saved from closing for at least another year after receiving a one-time $250,000 contribution from the federal government and $275,000 in donations from the legal community.
Earlier this month, the program, run by Pro Bono Ontario, announced that it would close down its three courthouse-based legal help centres — two based in Toronto and one in Ottawa — by mid-December due to lack of funding to pay support staff.
But the non-profit says the one-time contribution it has received from a federal Department of Justice program and donations from law firms, individual lawyers and law associations will keep the centres open through the end of 2019, while it figures out a solution for long-term funding.
"It's been incredible," said David Scott, one of the founders of Pro Bono Ontario.
"The service, which is absolutely critical to access to justice in Ontario, has been vindicated by the Attorney General of Canada and by the profession."
Last year, the non-profit helped more than 25,400 unrepresented clients with everything from the right legal form to fill out to whether or not they have grounds for a wrongful dismissal case.
The service ... has been vindicated by the Attorney General of Canada and by the profession.- David Scott, founder of Pro Bono Ontario
Scott told CBC Toronto that money had been an issue for about a year as private funders could no longer fully support the program, and efforts to court the Attorney General's office and the Law Society of Ontario for funding had also been unsuccessful.
No funding from province
The legal help centres receive no funding from the province, other than rent-free space in the three courthouses where the program operates — despite the fact a study shows it saves Ontario millions a year.
The return-on-investment analysis of the program that Pro Bono Ontario presented to the provincial government last year shows its services for unrepresented people in the civil courts save the government $10 for every dollar invested in the program.
If you look at that over the course of a year, the study says, the program saves the province more than $5 million by reducing the number of court proceedings, increasing court efficiency and providing pro bono lawyer time from the private sector.
Ontario Attorney General Caroline Mulroney met with Pro Bono Ontario three times between July and early November to encourage the non-profit "to work with its private sector partners … to find solutions to its long-term funding issues."
What comes next?
Scott believes the province needs to assume some responsibility for the legal help centres but for the moment the non-profit is looking elsewhere for sustainable funding.
"The next step is to ensure that agencies responsible for access to justice step up," Scott told CBC Toronto. "Our first position is that this is the responsibility of the Law Society of Ontario."
The Pro Bono Ontario founder says law societies in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan have already taken on the responsibility, and Ontario should be next by establishing a levy for members.
"If the profession doesn't recognize that the service we provide is at risk, it will be a very sad day."