Ontario’s Community Legal Clinics and Covid 19: just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water

Ontario has over 70 community legal clinics. Around 50 are general with geographical catchment areas that, in total, cover the whole Province and 20 or so are specialist centres. Under Ontario’s state of emergency declared on March 17, all are included as ‘professional and social services that support the legal and justice system’ and thereby as essential services (along with liquor stores). Everyone has to comply with physical distancing rules – a concept which has been more emphasised more than our ‘lockdown’. However, most clinics – like our law centres – have, in practice, closed their offices except for skeleton staff providing core services. They are operating remotely.

To an outsider, Ontario’s community legal clinics appear to have hitherto lived somewhat of a charmed life. Politicians of a right wing hue regularly come and go, promising to dismantle them. The current premier, Doug Ford, won an election two years ago for his Progressive Conservative party with a slash and burn programme to public spending. His early targets were pretty comprehensive – education, the environment, health care and social, community and legal programmes. This is a slightly different list of cuts from those developed by the Coalition government in the UK but, for justice, it resulted in a similar projected reduction of 30 per cent to the overall Provincial legal aid budget. Community legal clinics could not be shielded from the consequences. Ontario’s clinics as a whole lost $15m (£8.6m or $US11m) from their overall budget of $90m (£52m or $US65m). ’The result in Toronto’, reported the Toronto Star, ‘was a cut of almost $1 million across 13 neighbourhood legal clinics and pulling $1 million from a 14th clinic, Parkdale Community Legal Services.’ The cuts were highly controversial and opposed by national Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who stumped up cash to maintain refugee services that were also a particular Ford target. 

In June 2019, after massive opposition and collapsed public support, the Ford government rowed back on much of its package; changed its Attorney General; and, though it stuck to the legal aid cuts for the current year, backed down for the future. Until this reversal under pressure, Doug Ford had looked like a dead ringer for his American neighbour.  As the Guardian reported, ‘comparisons to Trump have been unavoidable, sparking wide debate as to whether the divisive wedge politics that have rattled the US … have now landed in Canada.’ 

Ford’s response to Covid 19 has accelerated his transformation from populist right-winger to popular big spender. Now he is buddying up to Liberal Party Prime Minister Trudeau and calling out Covid 19 hoaxers as a ‘bunch of yahoos’. The Washington Post runs stories under headlines like ‘The coronavirus crisis can forge great leaders’ that praised Ford as ‘one of the most trusted political leaders’; The Christian Science Monitor reports that ‘Doug Ford’s leadership is making friends out of foes in Ontario’. His handling of the pandemic has drawn widespread praise. 

Such was the complex political background against which Covid 19 landed in the province – just as community legal clinics were breathing a sigh of relief. 

Also relevant to the impact of Covid 19 on legal centres is Ontario’s sheer size – roughly that of France and Spain combined. It has a relatively low population of 14m – with three sizeable conurbations, a number of smaller towns and a lot of trees, lakes and bears. The big cities are Toronto, whose greater metropolitan area has a population of 6m, Hamilton and Ottawa. 

All this means, as Lenny Abramowicz, executive director of the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario (ACLO), reports, ‘Covid 19 has had most impact in Toronto and in care homes throughout the Province. In Toronto, people are more reluctant to go to work, because of the concentration of workplaces and because getting to the office typically means using public transit.  Outside of Toronto, most people use their own cars and there is more space so there is less reluctance to go into work.  Nevertheless, most clinic staff, across the province, are working from home’.

Hugh Tye is the executive director of the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic – the largest in the province with over 30 full and part-time staff. He reports that his city feels much more relaxed than Toronto. His centre is, however, very close to being closed entirely. ‘Everyone is set up to work from home. Most people do so. My co-director and I go in alternately once a day. We still get mail. We get deliveries. We need to troubleshoot. Caseworkers only come into the office as an exception when something requires them to do so.’ Tribunals still use faxes so often staff need to come in to use the fax machine.

One of the first moves of the central association was to support the individual centres in working remotely. ‘We have done three things,’ says Lenny Abramowicz. First, ’we are by holding webinars for clinic managers so they can talk to each other on such issues as how to do intake, pay bills, deal with unionised staff and a whole number of practical questions’. Second, ’we have acted on behalf of clinics in liaising with LAO [Legal Aid Ontario] in terms of what clinics need.’ The biggest issue has been getting extra licences and additional servers to support the software covering all the staff working remotely. The previous assumption, reasonable enough at the time, was that only some staff would need them to work at the weekends. Clinics now have enough licences but some of the software remains slow, particularly at busy times. ‘There is often a measurable delay before you can see what you are typing. Many clinic staff outside of Toronto are actually going into the office because it is so difficult to use.’ There is a related problem with LAO’s central case management system which is reportedly a ‘nightmare’ to use remotely. Third ‘the Association has been working with clinic subject matter experts to run substantive legal webinars for clinic staff – particularly focusing on how the COVID crisis and the government’s special relief programs create legal issues in the areas of housing, employment and other income maintenance benefits.’

Hugh Tye reports how his clinic has had to upgrade its equipment and adapt its technology to the new situation. It was provided with Skype for business installed by LAO. “I can’t say it is a wonderful platform. It is somewhat unreliable. We are also using zoom. That does seem better and we use it for various team meetings. We also set up a less formal whatsapp group. That has things like pictures of people’s kids and pets. That has been good. It keeps people connected.’

Initially, Lenny Abramowicz reports that clinics saw ‘an initially precipitous drop in intake – for whatever reason. The courts and tribunals initially slowed down in hearing cases. Only in the last couple of weeks have numbers of centre users started to come up.’ The numbers may be down but the novelty of the problems and their complexity is up. A particular source of difficulty has been the interrelationship between the new social security programmes at federal and provincial level between themselves and existing benefits. In addition, ’We are starting to have telephone hearings with tribunals. Some are more aggressive about this than others. There have been problems with the robustness of equipment. And many of clients just don’t have enough cellphone minutes. They rely on public sources of wifi that have closed down.’ Employment has been another hot issue – both through clients who have been laid off and those who have been required to work in circumstances that they do not think are safe. ‘There are lots of dispute about health and safety’. The numbers of immigration cases ‘have been cratering’ because people just cant get into Canada but there are some difficult cases. For example, clinics in Ontario’s south west are dealing with foreign farm workers who may enter the country provided that the farm has enough physical space. There is a lot of discussion about whether that is the case.’ Although, as here, eviction of tenants is unlawful, that has led to some unlawful evictions.

The clinics have continued their community work and organising. Hugh Tye reports that they are trying to deal systemically with practices like unlawful evictions and the unfair issuing of fines for breach of physical distancing. ‘We arranged meetings with the police and city by-law department. We wanted to ensure there was no criminalising the poor. We have had some success. For example, folks who live in homeless accommodation were being ticketed. But for them social distancing was impossible. We encouraged the authorities to interpret a shelter as a household. Their response was OK in the end. We made it into the media. The City was embarrassed.’ The issue of physical distancing in housing shelters has been even more of a problem in Toronto and led to human rights litigation by a coalition that includes a number of clinics.

Lenny Abramowicz has taken up the promotion of strategic work through the national association. ‘We had one webinar on law reform work and community work. It has become even more challenging to carry out public education and law reform initiatives. Some centres are having community zoom gatherings. They are not the same as physical meetings but they are making efforts.  We have talked within the management group of the association of carrying out virtual public legal education. We think that is direction it will go.’ Hugh Tye reports, ‘We have been thinking if we need basic equipment like lapel mikes, cameras and so.’ The clinics closeness to their users’ experience has given them advantages as Lenny Abramowicz says, ‘This time presents a great opportunity for us to talk to government. We can give feedback. We have been pushing for changes [to policy] and being successful’.

The future is, however, a worry: ‘People are terrified about what is coming. Everyone is concerned that it is going to be a pig circus. As programmes end and eviction moratorium is lifted, people worried about what will happen. At the moment, welfare authorities not cutting people off. But when that happens, that is when the tsunami arrives … We don’t know when things will open up. Ontario is keeping its schools shut until at least the end of May. Other provinces, like Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, that have low number of Covid 19 cases, are beginning to open up.’

And with the future will come the old problem of money. Even if Doug Ford has turned out to be a pussycat, there are bound to be issues over finance. This is particularly so because legal aid is part-funded by the income on lawyers’ client accounts. That has fallen precipitously, independently of government plans to claw back spending. Lenny Abramowicz says that he worries that ‘some of this will be the new normal. Up till now funders and government been supportive. We are worried that some might see this as an opportunity to attack community nature of clinics. There are some signs in other places like Manitoba. There are concerns also about tribunals and courts. We are happy to see a step up on e-filings. We are worried that tribunals and courts will say they don’t need in person hearings. Our clients need to be able to interact with us and for many of our clients need to react with us and tribunals in person.’ 

There are positives. ‘There has been a change of language about supporting the most vulnerable,’ says Lenny Abramowicz. Hamilton was the site of an experiment by the previous Provincial government into a universal basic income. The Ford administration initially terminated it. However, ’Suddenly,’ says Hugh Tye, ‘it becomes more possible.’ And, in this way and with this balance, Ontario’s clinics continue their perilous survival.

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