Pro Bono Ontario launches telephone hotline

In an effort to increase access to justice, Pro Bono Ontario has introduced a free legal advice hotline and it’s looking for more volunteer lawyers to take a shift on the phones.

Pro Bono Ontario launches telephone hotline
Lynn Burns, executive director of Pro Bono Ontario, says for many people there is nowhere to turn for legal advice.

In an effort to increase access to justice, Pro Bono Ontario has introduced a free legal advice hotline and it’s looking for more volunteer lawyers to take a shift on the phones.

Since the soft launch of the hotline on Sept. 11, the hotline has helped more than 2,000 clients or an average of 54 people per day with their legal questions. PBO says it resolves 79 per cent of the issues brought to it in a single call, which mostly takes less than half an hour. The official launch is Nov. 27.

Lynn Burns, executive director of PBO, says she always wondered if there was a way to serve the 85 per cent of legal issues that go unserved in Ontario.

“Everyone talks about the 85 per cent who have legal problems that are not attractive to the marketplace. The legal issue they have falls outside the scope of legal aid and lawyers aren’t going to make any money on it,” Burns says. “When they talk about the 85 per cent of legal problems that Ontarians face, there’s really nowhere else to turn.”

Concerns caused by door-to-door salespeople have provided the hotline with a lot of activity, as many people tend to get pressured into signing contracts they do not want.

“Seniors tend to be the victims of scams and door-to-door salesmen, and sometimes they’ll want to get out of a contract and we’ll be able to prepare a cooling-off letter that helps them get out of a contract,” Burns says. “That’s something that we’re seeing quite a bit.

Forty-three per cent of legal problems handled by the hotline are civil matters, with 17 per cent being housing issues and 12 per cent for both employment and consumer matters. The hotline does not handle criminal matters, but it will refer callers to legal aid, Burns says.

Now in its ninth week, the hotline logs about 300 calls per day, answered by an average of four volunteer and two staff lawyers.

Burns says that the level of response is impressive given that PBO has not done any outreach beyond providing information at its in-court services at two courts in Toronto and one in Ottawa.

“We haven’t done any outreach at all and the first week we started out getting about 100 calls a day, with no outreach, so that’s pretty remarkable,” she says. “Makes you realize that this is a service that the public really needs.”

The hotline comes as the availability of legal aid is on the decline in Canada.

A Canadian Bar Association Access to Justice Committee study, released in December 2016, showed there has been a 20-per-cent decrease in funding in per-capita spending on civil legal aid since 1994. The federal government has also decreased funding for criminal legal aid. From 1992 to 2012, the number of approved civil legal aid applications was reduced per capita by two thirds.

The reports states that because of these cuts, legal protections are becoming “increasingly limited for low- and middle-income people,” as one must be on social assistance or have an income just above social assistance levels to qualify for legal aid.

The PBO’s hotline runs with the help of Salesforce, a customer relations management technology, which helps them track where calls are coming from. Burns says this call-in model can help to serve the legal needs of people living in remote and rural areas with scarce access to lawyers.

“I just see that this is a really promising model that I think that we’re going to see people looking at nationally; I can see this working in other provinces,” she says. “We’re never going to have the resources to provide legal assistance in every community in the province and this is a good way to serve as many people as we can.”

Any practising lawyer can help by volunteering as little as four days a year. The hotline covers a broad range of topics, so there's a way to use every lawyer's expertise and skills to give back to the community.

In November, BMO Financial Group’s legal department is spear-heading BMO Week at the hotline, in partnership with its external counsel McCarthy Tétrault LLP. Other corporate legal departments are being challenged to volunteer as well.

In a statement to Pro Bono Ontario, Simon Fish, executive vice president and general counsel with BMO Financial Group, said:

“No one should be deprived of access to justice because they can’t afford it. As a company, our desire to be helpful and create positive change in our communities is important to us. Pro Bono Ontario’s new Hotline is a very direct way that our lawyers at BMO can bring legal services to the most vulnerable. For them, being able to see the immediate impact they can make on someone else’s life goes to the core of why they volunteer. I hope more legal groups will join our efforts."

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