Responses to recent media enquiries
LAO's transformation in Guelph
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Legal Aid Ontario provided information to the Guelph Mercury in response to questions about LAO services in that community. Some of these responses appeared in the May 13 Guelph Mercury article “Guelph legal aid office closing.” LAO's complete responses to those questions are listed below.
If the Guelph office is set to close, when will that happen? How long have people been referred to the 1-800 number?
The current Guelph legal aid office will eventually be replaced with new client access points that include a courthouse location, toll free legal aid phone services (1-800-668-8258 press 0 - even from a payphone – no coins required collect calls accepted), and our enhanced Legal Aid Ontario website. (www.legalaid.on.ca) Clients will now primarily access legal aid services through our toll-free client service centre, while clients who need to meet with a legal aid representative in person will be able to do so at the Legal Aid Ontario courthouse location. There is no fixed date for when this transition will be complete.
Currently, clients visit the office in Guelph to complete an application for a legal aid certificate (which allows them to retain private counsel). The Guelph legal aid office took 904 applications in 2009. LAO now has new ways in which clients can access a full-range of legal aid services, including applying for a certificate. For example, through our new 1-800 number, clients can apply for a certificate by phone, and can also access other legal aid services such as summary legal advice, general information and referrals to other social service agencies or community clinics.
Legal Aid Ontario’s court-based office is now being constructed and we anticipate that it will be open this summer. Until then, clients can continue to visit the current legal aid office. We are in the process of finalizing its hours of operation with the court’s administrative staff, and will send out a public service announcement with all the information clients will need about hours and services once the details are confirmed.
Similar to the current legal aid office, the courthouse office will provide in-person assistance to clients who are in court that day, and access for our more vulnerable clients. They will be able to receive assistance in filling out an application, and information about the court processes. LAO is committed to maintaining in-person service to clients who are unable to apply by phone.
Clients already need to attend at the courthouse for court appearances, and LAO serves almost 10,000 clients in court each year through our Guelph duty counsel lawyers. Through the court-based office, these clients will now be able to apply for legal aid services at the same time they attend for their court appearance. Our court-based staff will be able to assist duty counsel by giving general information to clients and helping with intake, which will help us deliver our services more efficiently and effectively.
Having an office at the courthouse is a convenient way to assist people when and where they need help. Clients who are in court can quickly travel down the hall to apply for legal aid, rather than having to leave the courthouse, and having to return to court on another day.
In addition to my earlier questions about Guelph’s office, I hear there are other offices in Ontario closing. How many?
Legal Aid Ontario has phased out the old structure of legal aid application offices and moving to a model that provides new client access points that include a courthouse location, toll free legal aid phone services (1-800-668-8258 press 0 - even from a payphone – no coins required), and our enhanced Legal Aid Ontario website. (www.legalaid.on.ca).
Clients now easily access legal aid services through our toll-free client service centre, one of 40 Legal Aid Ontario courthouse locations across Ontario or one of 9 district Offices.
Our toll-free service line was established in December 2008 in response to our clients’ requests for telephone-based legal aid services. Offering legal aid help and information by phone eliminates any transportation barriers that our clients may face, and allows our clients more options in how they access our services.
Since establishing the toll-free line we have expanded the services offered and increased the number of client service representatives available to help callers. The service has proven to be very popular with our clients. In April 2010, more than 20,000 people contacted us toll-free for legal aid assistance and we’re now averaging more than 1,000 calls a day.
We are thrilled to be able to offer Guelph area residents the opportunity to access legal aid services from home. Clients who need in-person access can continue to visit our duty counsel office in the Guelph courthouse.
The Star reported layoffs planned as a result of a $56 million deficit in the fall of 2009. Can you speak to it? They also mention the shut-down of a toll-free advice line. Is what is happening in Guelph as a result?
The transformation of legal aid services in Guelph is part of a larger LAO wide modernization strategy launched several years ago to reduce administrative costs and improve services and access for clients.
A cornerstone of LAO’s modernization strategy includes the implementation of a “district model.” This improves the coordination and accountability of legal aid services by restructuring the traditional model of 51 separate offices into 9 larger districts. Clients can now easily access legal aid services through our toll-free client service centre, one of 40 Legal Aid Ontario courthouse locations across Ontario or one of 9 District Offices.
As a result of these and other changes, LAO will enhance client service via new technology, improve the organizations staff to management ratio significantly by 50 per cent, resulting in a forecasted cost savings of more than $20 million in 2010-11 or about 37 percent of LAO’s overall administration budget.
LAO’s modernization strategy takes into consideration the requirement to always be prudent with public money particularly at a time of economic restraint.The recent downturn in the economy resulting in a decrease in Law Foundation revenues, which are expected to be much lower than in the last number of years reinforces the importance of investing in technology and finding new and innovative ways of increasing access and service for clients.
Over the last 3 years, LAO has been increasing the use of technology to help improve our processes and reduce our administrative costs and invest savings in direct client services.
Simplifying client legal aid application process
We've made it easier and faster for clients to apply for a legal aid certificate. LAO has introduced a simplified application process for clients. This process reduces the time required to complete an application by 62 per cent and frees up resources that can be reinvested in direct client services. Sixty four per cent of clients receive a same day decision on their legal aid application, which allows them to begin moving forward with their legal matters. For instance, of the 904 applications taken last year in Guelph, 334 were eligible for SOAP, the simplified online application process used by the client service centre.
Increasing access to legal aid services
Clients can access a full-range of legal aid services over the phone, including applying for certificates. The toll-free number is 1-800-668-8258 press 0, and there are no coins required, even from a payphone.
Legal Aid Ontario is offering more services and assistance toll-free over the phone than was available at area offices, including summary family law and criminal advice. Accessible by phone the toll-free service is available in 120 languages, including 18 aboriginal languages and dialects, through simultaneous interpreting services. Callers are connected to a client service centre staffed with more than 60 LAO employees networked from office locations across the province.
The toll-free service eliminates the challenges posed by language fluency and transportation issues, a major problem in rural areas. This also cuts down on the number of missed appointments, which allows clients to get the services they need and to proceed with their legal matters more quickly.
Our clients have been asking us for the convenience of getting legal aid information and applying for services from the comfort of home or familiar locations, and there has been an overwhelming response to this service. In March, nearly 13,000 people contacted us toll-free for legal aid assistance.
Increased online information and resources for clients
We have redesigned and re-launched our website (www.legalaid.on.ca), introducing changes to make the site more user-friendly. The revised site provides access to information about legal aid services, and other online resources and information. Since launching the site in late November, the site has had more than 250,500 visitors, and a million page views.
Reducing leasing costs by $900,000 annually
In July 2008, LAO relocated the provincial office to the Atrium on Bay. By adopting an open office concept for all staff, CEO included, we were able to reduce our footprint by 23% or about 20,000 square feet.
More payment methods for clients
Legal Aid Ontario clients with contribution agreements no longer need to visit a legal aid office to make payments. Instead, payments can now be made at any bank location in Ontario. Clients do not need to have a bank account, and there is no fee for making a payment. This alternative also saves a trip to a legal aid office.
Improvements for legal aid lawyers
LAO has introduced online tools that expedite the certificate acknowledgment process (which confirms a clients' status and authorizes lawyers doing work on behalf of legal aid clients to begin working on a case). This process is all done online, so that lawyers no longer have to contact or request confirmation from a legal aid office.
Improving staff to management ratio
LAO is improving its staff to management ratio significantly by 50 per cent. As a result of these and other improvements, LAO will reduce overall administrative costs by $ 22.7 million in 2010- while improving services for clients.
Can you also explain the lack of an area director in Guelph? Was that person laid-off? When?
The local part time area director’s retainer ended in March. As part of our new district management structure, our new Hamilton-Kitchener District Are Director is responsible for legal aid services in Guelph. Also, a new manager of legal Aid services oversees the delivery of direct legal services in Kitchener and Guelph.
How much of the staffing in Guelph has been reduced?
It is LAO’s policy to not discuss specific staffing information out of respect for our staff. As LAO continues moving forward with modernization and expanding client access points, the functions of some positions will change, some positions will no longer be required, and some new positions will be needed. Guelph area residents will still be able to access our service, through our toll-free line, and our courthouse location.
I also believe there are individuals who have tried to access legal aid through the 1-800 number and have had to re-start the process because they have been unable to meet deadlines since they have to mail in information now. Are there measures being taken to address such incidents?
As a result of the increasing popularity of the toll-free number and to ensure shorter wait times additional staff have been allocated to meet the growing demand. LAO’s toll-free service now connects callers to more that 60 LAO employees networked from office locations across the province.
LAO has also restructured its call system into two tiers. This new two-tiered system helps to reduce wait times and connect clients with the right service at the right time.
Tier 1 representatives’ triage calls and provide general referrals to duty counsel, community legal clinics or other agencies as needed and escalate calls, when appropriate, to Tier 2.
Tier 2 representatives’ provide more specialized services, including application processing. Eligible clients may also receive up to 20 minutes of summary legal advice, from a lawyer, for family and criminal law matters.
To ensure client documentation does not slow down the application process, LAO is implementing a new process in which all documentation submitted by clients is mailed to one centralized location, where it is scanned and attached to the clients’ electronic files. These files are accessible to authorized legal aid intake staff across the province.
For more information
For more information please contact:
Manager, Communications and Media Relations