Legal aid paper hints at transformation of clinic system

Centralized services, greater use of paralegals, and cutting down on bricks and mortar are all on the agenda as Legal Aid Ontario takes a look at the province’s clinic system.

In a discussion paper [] released Friday, LAO noted a number of demographic changes that it believes Ontario’s legal clinics need to do a better job of adapting to. They include the aging of the population, growth in the working poor, changing geographic location of low-income Ontarians from city centres to the suburbs, and increasing number of aboriginal Ontarians.

“The system must respond to the growing diversity of Ontario’s population,” the report, which cites the disconnect between the existing system and changing client needs, notes.

LAO released the discussion paper as part of its contribution to the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario’s strategic planning exercise, a process aiming to chart future directions for the system. While LAO’s budget for the clinics has increased to about $70 million this year from $37 million in 1998-99, the paper raises concerns about how they’re using the money.

“The growth in the number of clients served by the clinic law delivery system has been very modest despite significant recent investments. In other words, increases in funding have not demonstrably translated into much more access to justice or better client services. As discussed in the 2010 discussion paper on administrative savings, between 1999 and 2009, LAO increased clinic funding by 57 per cent. Adjusted for inflation, this represents a 30-per-cent increase in funding while the number of assists during this period only increased 12 per cent.”

According to the report, much of the new money went to salaries and infrastructure rather than expanding services. It goes on to note that the goal should be to increase access to justice and find ways of streamlining the system through technological changes such as case management, call centres, and web-based client services.

It also says LAO will be looking at a broader transformation of the clinic system through centralized services; by examining the appropriate mix of staff among lawyers, paralegals, students, management, and administrative employees; and considering the value of bricks and mortar given the increasing clinic budgets for rent. Options, it notes, include locating clinic service providers in other agencies and public spaces.

“By co-locating staff, we could dramatically reduce the office space required to house clinic law service providers,” says the discussion paper.

The comments from LAO come as it has embarked on its own efforts in recent years to transform itself on the lines the discussion paper suggests. But while the paper hints at some criticisms of how clinics have handled funding increases, they’re likely to respond that they already run on bare-bones budgets and that the extra money they received in the last few years was largely making up for past cutbacks. Still, the paper offers some interesting suggestions for improving the system.

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