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COVID-19's unsung hero: Pro Bono Ontario

As businesses flounder and jobs are lost, PBO has not skipped a beat, writes Gordon Currie

Gordon Currie

On March 11 the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic, setting off a chain reaction of events having profound implications for all of us, some obvious and others much less so.

Although not in the headlines, COVID-19 has created an avalanche of legal problems for low-income Ontarians who, even in normal times, struggle with access to justice. Jobs are being lost, rent payments are being missed and bills for everyday essentials are going unpaid. But as with the wonderful response from Canadians of all walks of life to the pandemic, there is good news on the access-to-justice front. Pro Bono Ontario (PBO), an organization dedicated to providing free legal advice to those in need, has risen to the challenge of COVID-related legal issues.

Founded in 2001, PBO develops innovative programs that address civil, non-family legal problems, which represent 60 per cent of unmet legal needs in Ontario. For those familiar with the challenges of delivering legal services across Canada’s most populous province, it will come as no surprise that PBO was the first legal service provider in Ontario to implement a response to the pandemic. In fact, within 48 hours of the WHO’s announcement, PBO pivoted to a fully virtual service, providing low-income Ontarians with safe, easy-to-access legal advice through its Free Legal Advice Hotline.

For clients, access to PBO’s services requires only a phone call to the hotline; but under the covers lies a sophisticated combination of best-in-class call centre technology, a case management database, document assembly tools to support legal drafting, and an extensive knowledge library that provides easy access to the best answers to common legal questions. The hotline comes to life with the support of PBO’s roster of experienced staff members and a small army of volunteers. Each day 14 lawyers are answering calls, providing summary legal advice and drafting legal documents to help those in need. Thanks to the dedication of PBO’s volunteers and staff, Ontarians have not lost a single day of access to PBO’s programs and services.

Seven weeks and 2,609 calls later, the enormous impact of COVID-19 on the incidence of unmet legal needs is apparent. Calls have increased 30 per cent compared to the same period last year. PBO’s employment line is inundated with people who have suddenly lost their jobs or who are worried about unsafe working conditions. The housing line is addressing looming evictions, abandoned leases and roommates struggling with social distancing. Consumers have bills they can no longer afford. Non-profits and small businesses are dealing with cancelled events, frustrated contracts, liquidity crises, and overhead they can no longer pay. People, many of whom are frontline workers, are calling for help with powers of attorney and estate planning. Civil litigants are unsure of limitation periods. And so on. The PBO knowledge-management system now has answers to questions that no one dreamed of just a few months ago.

Quite apart from COVID-related issues, the problems of everyday life continue unabated even as our routines have been disrupted. Experience tells us that without timely advice people make uninformed decisions that can have serious consequences.

As in the past, the legal profession has been right alongside PBO’s small but mighty team. The volunteer rate is as robust as when the hotline and three court-based law help centres were open, and volunteers were active in hospitals, schools and other locations across the province. Firms and legal departments are signing-up for our online tutorials, and their IT departments are working with us to ensure that the onboarding of volunteers working from basement offices or kitchen tables is as hiccup-free as possible. Lawyers really are members of a caring profession and they want to help; PBO gives them the infrastructure and support to do so.

I am immensely proud of the work PBO is doing on the frontlines of this unprecedented access-to-justice crisis. Like many others, I am deeply concerned that this crisis has not yet peaked, even as measures to flatten the pandemic’s curve appear to be bearing fruit. Experience has taught us that secondary problems will develop over time. For example, job loss today will lead to housing insecurity tomorrow.

Of course, like so many other charities, PBO’s finances have been hurt by the pandemic, both because of unanticipated expenses and because planned fundraising events have been cancelled. As PBO rises to the challenge before us, it needs your financial support more than ever to ensure that it can continue to address Ontarians’ everyday legal needs. Please consider contributing to PBO, in whatever amount you can manage.

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