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Are Legal Clinic mergers on the Horizon for the GTA?

Final Report released from GTA Transformation Project.

by Brad Evoy

PHOTO: Kensington-Bellwoods Community Legal Services
PHOTO: Kensington-Bellwoods Community Legal Services

Since the early 1970s low-income communities have relied on the expertise and local focus of community legal clinics. However, despite opposition, a new controversial plan proposes to change the current distribution of legal clinics in the Greater Toronto Area.

In 2013, sixteen of the seventeen community legal clinics in the GTA signed a Memorandum of Understanding, formally initiating the GTA Legal Clinics Transformation Project. According to the Co-Chairs of this process, Marjorie Hilley of Flemingdon Community Legal Services and Jack de Klerk of Neighbourhood Legal Services, the Transformation Project arose from “discussion between clinic Boards who were unhappy with their respective ability to serve their clients’ needs. Those discussions led directly to the research project conducted on behalf of the 6 ‘east of Yonge’ clinics which itself led to the current project. The initial research suggested inter alia [among other things] that more co-ordination could be realized more easily if clinics were larger”.

But not everyone in the community is sold on the nature and direction of the Legal Clinics Transformation Project. Recently, Kensington-Bellwoods Community Legal Services has come out against the Transformation Project’s current direction and the proposed mergers. Board Member Andrew Cox believes that if the process is allowed the continue it will result in the mass merger of clinics and the loss of “decades of institutional and peoples history, as well as the multitude of social, professional and personal relationships developed between clinic staff and boards and communities”.

While all sides of this debate are now encouraging clinic boards to engage in wide community consultation, town halls, and meetings, the Transformation Project is aggressively moving to reinforce their vision. In calling for clinics to engage in consultation, the Co-Chairs also noted that “the Project has undertaken to provide backup support at [town hall] meetings as well as to Boards in their own meetings”.

Meanwhile, Oriel Varga of the grassroots Stop Clinic Mergers believes that Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) has had a greater role in the determinations of this process than Transformation Project organizers are willing to admit. While noting disagreement with the Transformation Project on this point, Varga notes that “a lot of the ideas that are being presented by [the Project] go back already before the establishment of the group” -- pointing to documents (like this one from 2010) which proposes clinic mergers from the perspective of the LAO. Even then, the consultants used by predecessor groups to the Project were paid for by the LAO and presented very similar recommendations, which convinces Varga of the existence of this deeper connection.

Legal Aid Ontario “supports the GTA Transformation project determination that larger clinics will provide greater capacity for enhanced service delivery and create opportunities to streamline administration in order to allow clinics to focus on their core business of delivering poverty law services” according to Jayne Mallin, Senior Counsel - Clinic Transformation. A LAO agreement to maintain consistent funding for participating clinics from 2014 through 2016 and the first year of the transformation process, along with the LAO becoming a party to the project itself further supports this position.

Cox and the Kensington-Bellwoods Board are concerned that GTA legal clinics do and should “generally function as autonomous bodies”. Bold and outright interference in Board decision-making worries Varga as well, who states that in her opinion “a lot of clinics actually signed on to the Memorandum of Understanding because they didn’t want to be left out of the process, not because they necessarily agreed with the mergers. And, at this point it is clear that this process has been a very top-down process and has not involved the community in the way that needs to happen”. As well, there is fear from all parties that the LAO will intervene itself and impose changes upon the legal clinic system.

In the eyes of the co-Chairs, the focus on clinic mergers alone by those external to the Transformation Project isn’t representative of the Project’s purpose. Collectively, they stated that “it should be made clear that the Project is not about mergers. The Project stated that we were going to develop a GTA clinic system as if we had a blank slate. One reason for this was that there were problems with the current boundaries between clinics. Mergers would not address those issues. The most obvious impact on clients resulting from implementing the Project’s recommendations will be that there will be increased services available”.

Varga believes the impacts on services will be rather negative under the Transformation Project. In describing the history of these services, Varga says that services for low-income people are “done different. It’s not just that the lawyer is there to help ‘poor’ people, but they’re there to help low-income people do their own thing. The lawyer is there to help those people do what they want not the other way around”.

Echoing concerns about the potential of increased government control and the loss of community guidance in larger clinics, Cox is gravely concerned about the uncertainties around the extra-legal and community work done currently by clinics in this proposed system. As well, while increases are disputed, transportation can be a wide barrier for low-income people. Cox notes that “more centralized clinics are harder to get to and will likely increase the transit costs for clients.” Traveling farther for these disconnected clinics, Cox believes could cause other problems as well, for without a presence in the community, these new clinics would be “less well known and trusted among residents and more like many of the other bureaucratic institutions they interact with and are accessing the clinic to deal with”.

Varga believes that low-income people “have to be at the forefront of the changes to their lives”, noting that these changes undermine the ability of clinics to engage in a systemic approach with localized knowledge and history in these communities. Movement towards mergers could well result in changes in service provision, including traveling legal workers over large catchment areas and an increased focus on telephone and internet service provision. These short-term, emergency services are “very, very different from how the clinics were built or conceptualized. First of all, the single telephone line where you get twenty minutes of legal advice is very different than a clinic that is within, working with a community of people. …  This is the concern--[these changes are the] same kind of vision of their own internal transformation, the same kind of vision they’re now pushing on legal clinics. It goes against the fundamental philosophy of [these] legal clinics”.

The Transformation Project remains firm in their belief in their goals, having just released their full report, and are moving forward with the development of an "Implementation Plan" by the end of the year. They indicated that they “anticipate that clinics will support the vision that is being articulated by the Project” and that the Implementation Plan is aimed to be developed with clinic boards, staff, and communities.

Yet, the preceding steps of the process are claimed to have taken place “entirely behind closed doors and not with the communities”, according to Varga. Similarly, Cox believes that “the steering committee must revisit consulting the communities that use the community legal clinics. Many community legal clinic users and sister agencies have no knowledge and have had no chance to comment on the process.” Both clinic and community organizers believe that gaining the consensus and consent of those whom the clinics serve is of paramount importance to the success of any changes to the clinic system--a move which seems unfulfilled.

In another factor, the Government of Ontario has just released funds in its recent budget that will bolster the province’s community legal clinic sector. According to the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario, “this money will allow clinics to provide services in areas of law we haven’t been able to do before, and will assist clinics in reducing poverty in communities across this province”. It is uncertain how increased investment may shift plans surrounding GTA’s legal clinics, if at all. In the end, this adds yet another aspect of consideration for legal clinics in the GTA, in an already unclear future.

If you want to learn more about these issues, Parkdale Against Poverty is hosting "Should Parkdale have a Community Legal Clinic?" A Community Forum on September 25th, 2014 at 6:00 PM in the Parkdale Library Auditorium.

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Brad Evoy (Brad Evoy)
Member since October 2013


Brad Evoy is a graduate student at the University of Toronto, blogger, writer, commentator, and sometimes firebrand. He has served as one of the Summer Membership and Admin. Coordinators for the Toronto Media Co-op and in the past has written for various other publications. Meanwhile, as an organizer, he's associated with the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG-Toronto) and Scientists for the Right to Know, along with past associations with various student organizations in two provinces.

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Support Access to Justice for Poor People in Toronto

Support access to justice for poor people and prevent the closing of community-run legal clinics in Toronto:
Please Come to  the City-wide Public Meeting organized by Kensington-Bellwoods Community Legal Services:
Thursday, September 18th 7:00 pm, Toronto City Hall Council Chambers
Please come to this important public meeting to learn about the “GTA Legal Clinic Transformation Project” and the proposal to replace 14 community legal clinics in the City of Toronto with 3 mega service centres!  There will be featured speakers to give background on the Project, the implications of the proposal, and what we can do about it.  There will also be a discussion period in which we encourage you to participate.
Tim Maxwell

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