New Federal Court pilot will fill gap for unrepresented immigrants, says judge

Justice Alan Diner describes how six-month Toronto pilot project will operate and improve administration of justice

New Federal Court pilot will fill gap for unrepresented immigrants, says judge
Justice Alan Diner chairs the Federal Court’s Bench and Bar Immigration Liaison Committee

This month the Federal Court launched the Federal Court Legal Assistance Program to assist unrepresented litigants in immigration and refugee matters who are not eligible for legal aid and cannot afford a lawyer. Federal Court Justice Alan Diner was instrumental in founding the pro bono six-month pilot project in Toronto, and spoke to Canadian Lawyer about its inception and purpose.

How did the Federal Court Legal Assistance Program come about, and what was the impetus for it?

This was a project the court began to explore several years ago, when we met with several pro bono organizations across the country. At that time, it was thought there would not be enough demand to justify having a duty counsel situated in any of the court’s facilities. However, we prepared a page of local pro bono, legal aid and other contacts for each of our facilities across the country, and made those pages available at our registry counters and website. This approach has been revisited due to the recent increase in refugee applicants, together with the recent cut in legal aid funding.

What function will the Federal Court Legal Assistance Program fulfil?

Apart from filling a gap [in access to justice for immigrants and refugees], whatever the ultimate direction of Legal Aid is, this court, like other courts in the country, feels it is important for vulnerable individuals in need, including many individuals going through the refugee process. The project aligns with the Federal Court’s current (2014-2019) and future (2020-2025) strategic plan, including the goals of access to justice and court modernization. We feel that this project has the ability to help achieve both of those objectives, and play its own small role in improving the administration of justice in our country.

How much of the Federal Court’s work is consumed by immigration and refugee matters?

It is safe to say that it constitutes the significant majority of the applications that get filed, and perhaps even a majority of court time. However, while immigration and refugee law are a mainstay of the court’s docket, so are other areas of national importance, including First Nations and class action cases that have been closely followed this week. Other important areas for the court include intellectual property, national security, human rights, maritime, transportation, agriculture, fisheries, competition, public service employment, privacy, official languages, prison law, and civil claims against the Crown.

What was your role in the development of this program?

I now chair the Bench and Bar Immigration Liaison Committee. This role allows the court to work with the legal community on both sides of the table: namely, with the lawyers that represent refugees and immigrants, and those that represent the government [in the judicial review of immigration and refugee decisions]. All sides were supportive of this proposal when the Committee raised it.

This pilot project is Toronto-based; does the Federal Court hope to expand the program after the pilot ends?

Many of our pilot projects are regionally based to start. The Federal Court’s Toronto courthouse, with the biggest volume of immigration files, made the most sense as a centre in which to launch the project. The hope with this pilot project, as with our others (those in the immigration area include the Settlement pilot and the e-Process pilot projects), is always to roll them out nationally (or expand them across all relevant practice areas) after the evaluation phase has proved to be value-added, and any wrinkles have been smoothed.

How will the pilot project be structured?

The pilot aims to start with up to 10 files, and the Committee will examine the prospects of expansion once that initial phase has been evaluated. Individuals will be selected based on a combination of merit and financial need. Application forms are available at the Toronto Federal Court Registry, and registry officers are aware of the program and will inform self-represented applicants of it. For the cases deemed meritorious, the applicant will be assigned a volunteer lawyer to proceed with the case. So far, about 20 lawyers across the country have volunteered.

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