Prescription for legal clinics from Legal Aid Ontario

By Deborah O’Connor

In the first article of our series we looked at Ontario’s system of legal clinics and how Legal Aid Ontario, their funder, sees their operations. In their discussion paper of May 2012 LAO calls upon clinics to examine their most fundamental views of the system and find more responsive, and more cost effective ways to deliver their services. Predictably, the clinics are feeling threatened by this latest challenge since they have already had several years of belt tightening and increased pressure to do more with less.

Contained in LAO’s report are many criticisms of how clinics do business. There are complaints small clinics in rural areas are inefficient, despite the fact that the clinics provide what is usually the only life-line for low income residents caught up in legal problems threatening their income, housing, and well being. The discussion paper calls for more web based services and toll free phone numbers to replace that hands-on assistance now being provided in small clinics operating with much less staff and resources than their counterparts in cities. Centralization is the buzzword haunting those clinics and their boards, even as the smaller clinics are some of the best performing and most critically needed by clients in the province.

The Legal Aid Ontario discussion paper complains clinics are stuck in the past and slow to react to changes in the low income population that require new knowledge of emerging legal needs and how to meet them. The measurement tools used by clinics are old and don’t accurately reflect effort and outcomes, says the report. While cost containment efforts have resulted in savings, discussion paper points out little progress in bringing about system-wide changes to how clinics operate and says clinics don’t use technology very well, either to manage their own files or reach out to clients.

Even the Auditor General chimed in to say that the independence of the 77 clinics, each one run by its own board of locally elected members, is an impediment to systemic change. In essence, the local autonomy of clinics that was once touted as their biggest strength is now seen as a major drawback to reform.

Looking at what the government wants from clinics, the report includes a long list to guide them to the provincial goals. Expanded access to justice tops the list, but the ways and means to do that don’t always jibe with the frequent references to cost savings for the taxpayer. While LAO bemoans the costs of clinic administration, it is calling for more of that through detailed needs assessments, centralized intake systems, group appointments for clients with the same issue, more online legal resources and the divestment of delivering public legal education over to websites and libraries instead, as Alberta and British Columbia have done. The abandonment of the clinic mandate to do community development, turning that over to other local agencies in a grant based program, is a radical solution for a problem that some think just needs better resources and a renewed commitment from the top down to the front lines.

If this looks like tough love for legal clinics, there are many who would agree the LAO report has found many perceived shortcomings that have been listed in some detail, but no acknowledgement of the clinics’ achievements and positive outcomes for clients is given. It all seems one sided and leaves the clinics like bereft children hanging their heads in shame just for trying to do their jobs. Under the heading of “Governance Experimentation and Innovation” LAO argues American models prove that large, complex organizations are better at facilitating innovation and high quality services. If that doesn’t drive fear into the hearts of rural and small town clinics, then the idea of having to conform to a city-driven but province wide formula for service provision surely will.

But clinics aren’t taking the blows meekly. They’re responding to Legal Aid Ontario’s report through the work of their Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario, and in the last of our series we’ll take a look at what the Association is saying along with some reflections from this veteran about how clinics can transform themselves and meet the challenges facing them and their clients into the future.