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Community lawyers flooded with housing, employment issues during pandemic

Already stretched thin, legal aid lawyers say they’ll have to make even more difficult choices.

Published Aug 6, 2020 at 5:50pm

Community lawyers flooded with housing, employment issues during pandemic

(Pexels)

Lawyers serving the province's most desperate say they're fielding more calls than ever, in a situation unforeseen in their "worst nightmares."

The calls have come from people who have lost their jobs or are worried about unsafe working conditions upon their return; people facing evictions and housing uncertainty exacerbated by new provincial laws; victims of domestic violence trapped with nowhere to go; international students left out of benefits; and those who are confused about their rights as they deal with unprecedented problems, while new information comes at a breakneck pace, lawyers told QP Briefing.

Pro Bono Ontario, a collection of volunteer lawyers who provide free legal advice to low- and middle-income Ontarians, has seen an "avalanche" of distressed callers to its hotlines, executive director Lynn Burns said. From March 13 to July 31, the organization has dealt with a 178 per cent increase in employment requests; a 164 per cent increase in housing requests; a 93 per cent increase for charity and small business advice; and a 44 per cent increase to its hotline for wills and estates, compared to the same time frame last year, she said.

Before the pandemic, a "good day" might see 80 calls, Burns said. Now, "it's not unusual for us to get over 300 calls a day, up to 350 calls a day." The agency has seen a 69 per cent increase in calls overall so far in 2020, she said.

The pandemic “has created an avalanche of legal problems for low- and middle-income families who, even in normal times, struggle with access to justice," she said.

Legal aid clinic West Toronto Community Legal Services has also seen a sharp uptick in employment and housing requests, Executive Director Elisabeth Bruckmann said, adding that there have also been a slew of questions about the federal CERB benefits. Many people receiving other social assistance have become tangled in a web of bureaucracy as they attempt to figure out whether they're eligible or not. Often, people living on disability supports apply, believing that they are eligible, only to find out that they must then pay back thousands of dollars to the government — or that their rent-geared-to-income has shot up after the sudden influx of cash into their bank accounts, she said.

Shalini Konanur, the executive director of the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, said they've seen the same issues. The clinic also deals in family law, which has seen an uptick in family violence cases — complicated by the fact that many don't want to go to crowded shelters during the pandemic, meaning they're stuck in unsafe situations, she said. The family courts have been a "mess" as custody and child support battles have also increased, she said.

Despite a Ministry of Health order to waive the three-month waiting period for OHIP during the pandemic, some new residents are being turned away from hospitals or charged for procedures, she said.

And, ineligible for some supports, international students are also often stuck in limbo — many are struggling with “basic survival,” Konanur said. One of the clinic's clients died by suicide Thursday morning, she said.

Despite the increase in problems, clinics likely haven't seen the worst of things yet, Bruckmann said.

As the world prepares for a potential second wave of the virus, the legal aid community is bracing itself for a new wave of legal problems faced by people who don't have the money to fight them. Many of the province's tribunals, like the Landlord and Tenant Board, shut down early in the pandemic. When they reopen, there will be a months-long backlog of landlords looking to settle disputes, Bruckmann said. And that's just one example.

"There’s concern across the clinic system about how we are going to manage, because most of us are stretched pretty thin already. And so any kind of wave of demand is a challenge for us," she said.

Burns said Pro Bono is bracing itself for the the eviction crisis to get even worse due to the Ford government's Bill 184. Critics of the new law say it makes it easier for landlords to evict tenants by encouraging landlords to pressure tenants to sign repayment agreements they might not understand, while expediting the eviction process in some scenarios.

Konanur said she's had to push back against landlords trying to get tenants to sign agreements they don't understand. "'They’ll pay you what they can pay you. They’re not signing anything,'" she's told some.

Pro Bono has a lawyer who's working full-time to get other staff up to speed on new legislation, Burns said. It's a heavy job right now, as lawyers are preparing to give advice to tenants about what to do when a landlord approaches them with a rent repayment agreement, among other issues. Already, PBO lawyers often have to give caveats when they answer caller questions, since legislation is moving so fast, Burns said.

“It’s been a really interesting period of time for us," she said.

Bruckmann said her clinic has applied for federal funding for a junior lawyer or paralegal to help them with the increased workload. Failing that, they'll have to get "creative," she said. Some people they'd normally represent will be sent to the landlord and tenant board after some summary advice, as the clinic will be forced to make difficult decisions about who's most in need.

“We try and stretch ourselves across as many cases as possible," she said, noting that Legal Aid Ontario will face a serious shortfall in funding again this year. "But ultimately there’s only so much we can do with the resources that we have.”

“It’s been really difficult,” Konanur said, noting that she's taken on a large amount of work outside her normal hours. “We don’t want to turn people away because these are such dire times for people.”

One silver lining to the ordeal has been the support of Ontario's legal community, Burns said. Despite shrinking from an organization with court- and hospital-based services to just a phone hotline, Pro Bono Ontario has more volunteers than ever before — a team of about 15 lawyers giving up their spare time to dispense much-needed advice from their kitchens and living rooms.

"I think it really demonstrates that lawyers are a very caring profession, and really want to help out, especially in times like this," Burns said.

“It's just something that none of us had ever dreamed of in our worst nightmares. But yes, I think we've been able to rise to the challenge."

Pro Bono Ontario's free legal advice hotline is 855-255-7256. The line is open Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.