Friday, November 02, 2007

Pro-Bono Law Ontario Increasing Access to Justice Where No Qualification for Legal Aid

According to Legal Aid Ontario’s 2006 Annual report, over 1 million Ontarians received assistance through legal aid in 2006.

In 1996, legal aid's financial eligibility requirements were tightened by 22%. They have not been raised since.

This has resulted over time in fewer Ontario residents qualifying for legal aid, although many unqualified applicants remain unable to afford an average lawyer’s hourly rate and retainers.

Many who fall into this group have begun representing themselves. This has led to a backlog in the court system as a result of such litigants' unfamiliarity with both Court rules and available alternative services.

Some Canadian law firms have taken notice and are attempting to initiate change through Pro- Bono Law Ontario. The National Post reports:

Ontarians who can't afford to hire a lawyer will soon have another option, as Canada's biggest law firms look to take a small claims court program that provides legal assistance to those who don't qualify for legal aid and extend it to lawsuits in the province's higher court, the Superior Court of Justice.

It's a concerted attempt by the legal profession to improve access to justice and tackle the problem of self-represented litigants, who are clogging the court system.

Pro Bono Law Ontario, a non-profit organization that runs the program, will open a self-help clinic to be staffed by lawyers from local firms. It's designed to build on the success of the small claims court program, which has served more than 1,000 people since June and provided more than $500,000 in free legal services.

- Annie Noa Kenet, Toronto

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