Responses to recent media enquiries
Improvements to family law services
February 25, 2010
Legal Aid Ontario describes improvements to family law legal aid services in Ontario in response to questions from the Toronto Star about the North York Family Law Service Centre and similar facilities.
1) When is (North York Family Law Service Centre) this scheduled to open? Also, what about the similar office planned for Newmarket? Will there be others around the province? If so, how many, where and when will they be open?
The new North York Family Law Service Centre is scheduled to open in mid to late April 2010. The new innovative North York Family Law Service Centre will provide legal aid clients with family matters a range of legal services in one location conveniently located next to Ontario’s busiest family court. The proximity to the courts will help to ensure that our clients have access to the right services at the right time.
There will be similar offices opening in Toronto and Newmarket in the spring and Brampton by early summer. The enhanced service centres reflect and respond to feedback and recommendations from the Family Law Advisory Committee established by the Ministry of the Attorney.
Legal Aid Ontario has also been expanding family services in communities outside of the GTA including Sarnia and Chatham. Staff lawyers have been hired to provided enhanced family duty counsel services in the courts as well as accept certificates from clients who are unable to find a private bar lawyer to represent them.
2) What is the reason for opening these offices?
It's part of LAO’s mandate to provide high quality and cost-efficient legal aid services. As an organization we are always looking at ways to improve client service and value for taxpayers.
LAO is increasing family law services for clients with a range of services, including certificate services, all in one location at a new Family Law Service Centre. The Family Law Service Centres will triage clients so they get the right service at the right time through a mix of integrated advice, immediate legal assistance for urgent or emergency matters, assistance with document preparation, representation (if needed by the client), mediation services, and appropriate referrals to other services to address clients' needs.
Eligible clients will continue to receive a Legal Aid Ontario certificate which they can use to retain the lawyer of their choice as is the case today. (Eligibility continues to be based on financial and legal eligibility.) The Family Law Service Centre will help clients with certificates to find and retain qualified counsel. In addition to traditional certificate services, LAO will be providing new services including:
- client need assessment to determine the appropriate service for the client, including the early identification of vulnerable clients in serious domestic violence cases and child protection cases;
- information about family breakup, family law and the family justice system, and a referral service to agencies (e.g. housing, income support);
- applications for Legal Aid certificates
- tailored family law services so clients receive the right service at the right time, such as:
- variation applications for support and simple access issues, and non-complex custody and access applications
- documentation preparation service for clients who may not be eligible for a certificate
- referral of non-complex and non-contentious issues to duty counsel for assistance;
- mediation conference facilitations
- direct client service by a staff family lawyer
3) Who will be making the triage decisions? A legal aid intake worker or a lawyer?
The family Law Service Centre will be staffed by full time legal workers, paralegals, and family lawyers that will provide legal services to clients.
As it’s often very difficult to find a family lawyer who can “drop everything” on a moments notice to file emergency ex-parte motions, Family Law service centre staff will be available to assist clients immediately. These types of motions, crucial in protecting women and children living in these situations, include restraining, emergency custody, and non-removal orders.
Paralegals under the supervision of a lawyer will be available to assess clients needs, provide immediate assistance, prepare court documents, and complete a legal aid application. Complex and serious matters will be referred to a family lawyer. Having Paralegals available to assist clients with routine matters and document preparation for clients who may not qualify for a certificate means clients are better prepared and informed about their situation before going to court, which can help to quickly move their matter forward.
4) If an applicant who arrives at the office qualifies for legal aid, why can't they be issued a certificate that would allow them to go to whatever lawyer they like?
The new North York Family Law Service Centre provides legal aid clients with a range of services, in addition to certificate services, all in one location close to the busiest family law court in Ontario. Certificates will be issued to eligible clients to retain a private lawyer of their choosing or a legal aid staff lawyer, as is the case today.`
5) How does Legal Aid Ontario respond to concerns from some members of the family law bar that assigning legal aid clients to a staff lawyer erodes the right to counsel of choice?
The new North York Family Law Service Centre provides legal aid clients with a range of services, in addition to certificate services, all in one location close to the busiest family law court in Ontario. Certificates will be issued to eligible clients who can use it to retain a private lawyer of their choosing or a legal aid staff lawyer.
6) Why did LAO not consult with the family law bar prior to developing this plan? Even if believed family law lawyers would be opposed to the development, did it not think they might have something to contribute to the discussion, given their years of experience in delivering legal aid services to family law clients?
The enhanced service centres reflect and respond to feedback and recommendations from the Family Law Advisory Committee established by the Ministry of the Attorney. The new Family Law Service Centres provide enhanced services for our clients.
7) Is this system modelled on a similar system in another jurisdiction?
The new Family Law Service Centres are unique to LAO and were created to improve services for clients and value for taxpayers.
8) How much will it cost?
It's part of LAO’s mandate to provide high quality and cost-efficient legal aid services, and for the past several years we've been looking at ways to incorporate technology and streamline our administration to improve services for clients and provide greater value for taxpayers. The investment in the new Family Law Service Centers is being funded through savings from streamlining our administration that are being reinvested into direct client services.
As I have said, the North York Family Law Service Centre is being funded through savings from streamlining our administration that are being reinvested into direct client services. Staff at the North York Family Law Service Centre will consist of a director, two lawyers and five paralegals all of whom are existing LAO employees. The Family Law Service Centre will be a centralized hub of excellence, staffed by LAO family law experts that will provide more coordinated legal services for eligible clients.
The North York Family Law Service Centre office will be located within existing LAO space that became available as we increased alternative access points for clients -including over the phone and courthouse locations. The square footage required to accommodate the new North York Family Law Service Centre is less than we currently have available. As a result of the required decreased footprint, the existing space has been physically divided and will be occupied by the North York Family Law Service Centre office and an independent community legal clinic.
North York Family Law Service Centre is being funded through the savings we have achieved from streamlining our administration. For the past several years, Legal Aid Ontario has been increasing the use of technology to help improve our processes and reduce our administrative costs, including:
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 three 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.
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. Collect calls accepted.
The number also provides access to other legal aid services such as summary family legal advice from a lawyer for eligible clients, general information, and referrals to other social service agencies. All of these services area available in 120 languages through simultaneous translation. Phone services provide a more convenient access point for clients facing language barriers or transportation challenges. The toll-free number connects clients to legal aid employees in communities across the province. In January 2010, more than 10,000 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 175,500 visitors, and three quarters of 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.
These are some of the ways LAO is streamlining administration, reducing cost, and reinvesting savings into direct client services like the North York Family Law Service Centre.
For more information
For more information please contact:
Manager, Communications and Media Relations