Free Legal Advice Hotline making a real dent in access-to-justice problem

Tracey from Toronto is experiencing stage 4 melanoma and her employer was threatening to revoke her health benefits. Struggling financially and feeling she couldn’t afford the hundreds of dollars she thought she needed to go to a labour lawyer, she didn’t know where to turn. Then she heard about Pro Bono Ontario’s Free Legal Advice Hotline.

She called the toll-free number and a Hotline volunteer took her call and drafted a letter to her employer. That was in May and she says her benefits are still in place thanks to the assistance she received.

“He put my mind at ease. He informed me,” says Tracey, adding she couldn’t believe how quickly the draft letter was prepared. “For people like me struggling financially because of my sickness, I feel really blessed that I have this place I can call. I’m truly grateful and thankful.”

In the year since it’s launch, PBO’s Hotline has helped up to 80 callers per day with just-in-time legal advice on everyday legal problems ranging from housing issues to job losses to consumer scams and business start-up concerns. Hundreds of volunteer lawyers are the backbone of the five-day-per-week call-in service that provides 30 minutes of free legal advice to low-income Ontarians who otherwise wouldn’t have anywhere to turn.

“The Hotline has surpassed all expectations,” says PBO Executive Director Lynn Burns. “We provided 14,000 callers with free legal advice in our first year. Given the public’s clear demand for accessible and timely assistance, it is no stretch to say that we will double that number in our second year. This is a ground-breaking delivery model that uses volunteers and state-of-the-art technology to provide meaningful access to justice for Ontarians wherever they live.”

These services are invaluable to vulnerable people whose barriers to justice include low-income, age, disability, geography, poor transit options and childcare obligations.

Seniors are a large group of callers, many of whom contact PBO because they were the targets of predatory door-to-door sales. They are frequently unaware of their rights, including the right to cancel contracts during a cooling-off period, cancel for an unfair business practice, or sue for damages. PBO has organized a response that includes advice, drafting the right correspondence, facilitating seamless access to our court-based programs and – for particularly vulnerable clients – matching them with pro bono lawyers.

Volunteers come from law firms and corporate legal departments of all sizes who are passionate about supporting access-to-justice initiatives and use their legal skills to give back to the community.

“Volunteering at the hotline gives us a chance to help those who have nowhere else to turn for advice as well as learn new things and expand our legal horizons,” says Robert Centa, managing partner, Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP.

“BMO proudly supports the access-to-justice initiatives of Pro Bono Ontario. We share their vision that no one should be denied legal assistance because of income level,” says Simon Fish, General Counsel, BMO Financial Group.

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Lynn Burns, executive director

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