Denied by the province and law society, Pro Bono Ontario turns to big law firms for funding
A charity that facilitates access to justice, including by helping unrepresented people in civil court, is looking for help from the legal profession as it fights for its existence.
Pro Bono Ontario offers services to those left navigating the complex legal system on their own, including three courthouse-based help centres (two in Toronto and one in Ottawa) that offer free advice in civil and small claims cases. Lawyers volunteering their time at the centres help unrepresented litigants with everything from filling out court forms to providing advice on the potential success of a claim.
But as the demand for Pro Bono’s services continues to increase, the charity’s long-term future has been thrown into doubt by a lack of sustainable funding, including difficulty in securing money from the provincial government and the Law Society of Ontario, the body that regulates the legal profession.
As one way of trying to maintain its current services and perhaps one day grow, Pro Bono’s board is turning to the province’s big firms and corporate in-house lawyers to pitch in.
“What we’re talking about is sustainable funding to sustain what we have but the need is growing, far faster than we’ve been able to keep up,” board member Gord Currie said in a recent interview with the Star.
Currie and board vice-chair Simon Fish said reaction so far from the big firms has been very positive, with some having already contributed funding, and they believe the charity will be able to maintain its current operations for at least another year. But whether it will still exist in three to five years is the question.
“There’s no shortage of lawyers volunteering their time,” Fish said, “but the problem is that (Pro Bono) itself can’t cope, it needs to be organized, and that takes money.”
The funding crunch almost led to the closure of the three law help centres last year, but a last-minute injection of cash from the federal department of justice and donations from the legal profession kept them open for at least another year.
“The law help centres are critical,” Currie said. “When someone shows up to court for the first time, it’s intimidating to have to represent one’s self. It doesn’t help anyone — doesn’t help the individual, doesn’t help the court system, doesn’t help access to justice.”
For many low-income people, the help centres can be their only option in getting some form of legal assistance in civil and small claims court, as Legal Aid Ontario does not fund lawyers for that area of the law.
Pro Bono says demand for its services increased by almost 300 per cent between 2009 and 2018. Aside from its law help centres, another popular service is its free legal advice hotline, which answered over 14,000 calls in 2018.
Money spent at Pro Bono largely covers rent, administrative staff and training. The organization’s core funding comes from the Law Foundation of Ontario, which is in turn primarily funded by the interest on lawyers’ mixed-trust accounts.
The charity has tried without success in getting the current and former Ontario government and the Law Society to commit to sustainable funding. Pro Bono has argued its existence actually saves the government money by making the court system more efficient through the legal assistance it provides to unrepresented litigants.
“So we think there’s an economic case to be made, quite part from the moral position that access to justice is a fundamental right and is something that the government should support,” Currie said.
The Ministry of the Attorney General told the Star that they provide rent-free space to Pro Bono Ontario at courthouses in Toronto and Ottawa for its help centres. (Pro Bono said the charity pays rent at one of its two Toronto courthouse locations.)
“The Ministry of the Attorney General recognizes the importance of pro bono legal services and has long been supportive of Pro Bono Ontario’s efforts,” ministry spokesperson Brian Gray said. “We are hopeful that Pro Bono Ontario will continue to work with its private sector partners to secure long-term funding.”
As for the Law Society, Currie and Fish argue that the body that regulates lawyers and paralegals in Ontario should provide funding as it has an obligation to facilitate access to justice, a point that Pro Bono has tried to raise with the Law Society in the past.
“Until such time as the law society becomes willing to take on this role of collection agent for the members, we’ve asked the firms to help encourage their own lawyers to give and to facilitate the collection of funding in much the same way as many organizations do in terms of their own employee giving campaigns for other good causes,” Fish said.
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Pro Bono gets some money from the law society in the form of a yearly $50,000 to help cover the rent of its headquarters, given in lieu of space that was once provided to the charity by the regulator.
A spokesperson for the law society says it is consulting on access to justice, including its funding policies for external organizations, and said that while it had not received a request from Pro Bono this year, the regulator was pleased to see that the charity has been able to raise money from legal associations and lawyers.
“This is significant and consistent with our view that we all have a role to play,” said spokesperson Wynna Brown. “The Law Society is a regulatory agency funded through annual fees from licensees, many of whom provide substantial pro bono supports individually and in different ways.”
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