Posted on: Monday, April 13/09
This is the fourth in a series of articles about the valuable work being done by the Specialty Clinics funded by Legal Aid Ontario under the Legal Aid Services Act's mandate to provide access to high quality legal services to low income individuals and disadvantaged communities.
In August 2001, Kimberly Ann Rogers died alone in her Sudbury apartment, eight months pregnant and destitute. The forty year-old woman was serving a six-month house arrest sentence and lifetime ban for collecting OSAP loans while on social assistance. The participation of the Income Security Advocacy Centre in the coroner's inquest into Roger's death helped lead to the abolition of the lifetime ban policy.
With over three million Ontarians living below the poverty line, ISAC has its hands full working to raise the standard of living for low-income communities across the province.
It is quite a mandate for a clinic with only seven people on staff, but the organization currently is involved in initiatives ranging from poverty reduction law reform work with the 25 in 5 Network, to collaborating with other clinics to challenge the limitations of Ontario's Special Allowance Diet Program at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. On the community front, ISAC campaigns with other organizations to encourage people to voice their opinions in decisions that affect them.
ISAC has made submissions to the Premier's Office and the Ministry of Community and Social Services, in addition to the Cabinet Committee for Poverty Reduction. The clinic's collaborative efforts with other anti-poverty organizations resulted in the government's commitment to review Ontario's social programs in its Poverty Reduction Strategy last December. ISAC plans on making certain the ideas and opinions of people who have lived on social assistance are included, as they would be crucial to the review.
The clinic feels that social assistance needs be transformed into a program that helps people get back on their feet and re-enter the workforce with good jobs, says Mary Marrone, ISAC executive director. This could take some time, particularly for women in domestic violence situations and newcomers whose credentials are not recognized in Canada.
Instead of focusing on individual cases, the organization focuses its litigation work on cases that can have a systemic impact, and works with clinic referrals and lawyers to help identify patterns in decision-making that require a higher level of intervention to be resolved. The greater the impact a case could have on a wider scale, the more likely ISAC is to take it on.
Established in 2001 by Legal Aid Ontario in part to conduct test case litigation relating to Canadian income security programs, ISAC felt a greater number of people could be assisted from working more closely with general clinics, looking at what was not working and deciding what policies needed to be addressed.
In the last year, ISAC has turned its attention to program delivery issues, such as a review of processes at the Disability Adjudication Unit, and advocating for the removal of punitive regulations. The information gathered has been used for direct advocacy with government, as well as to inform case selection decisions going forward.
While the process of law reform is often slow, Marrone feels that changing Ontario's social assistance policy could go a long way towards relieving much of the pressure put onto clinics. With half of all community clinic cases involving Ontario Works clients who should be on ODSP, policy changes to improve access to ODSP would mean that clinics could assist more clients with more and other pressing problems.
ISAC was established in 2001 by Legal Aid Ontario to serve low income Ontarians by conducting test case and Charter litigation relating to provincial and federal income security programs