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TLA urges provincial government to save Pro Bono Ontario

The provincial government must step in to save the vital cost-saving Pro Bono Ontario (PBO) program for self-represented litigants, Toronto Lawyers Association (TLA) President Dirk Derstine, tells AdvocateDaily.com

According to a CBC report, PBO is preparing to shut down its Law Help Centres in Toronto and Ottawa next month because it can no longer afford to pay support staff.

“The Toronto Lawyers Association is deeply concerned” by the news Derstine said in a statement to members, “and encourages the Ontario government to assist with the stable funding needs of the program.”

The centres, which are staffed by lawyers volunteering their time, assist unrepresented parties attempting to negotiate the civil court system without legal counsel, often due to lack of funds.

The province does not contribute funding directly to the program, but does provide PBO with rent-free space in the courthouses where it operates.

However, PBO founder David Scott told the CBC they would need $500,000 to keep the 11-year-old program going beyond Dec. 14, when funding for support staff is set to run dry.

In Toronto, that would mean the loss of Law Help Centres at the Small Claims Court location at 47 Sheppard Ave. E., as well as at the Ontario Superior Court at 393 University Ave.   

Derstine says the timing couldn’t be worse.

“The Law Help Centres have been faced with increasing demand, and last year served more than 25,000 unrepresented clients while providing much-needed relief to the courts,” he explains.

Without the centres, Derstine says the knock-on effects will be felt by all stakeholders in the system.

“Self-represented persons will be required to increasingly lean on the courts while consuming precious court time within a system already strained and faced with delays,” he says.

In fact, a U.S. consulting firm hired by PBO found the program provided a $10 return for every $1 invested, generating savings to the province of around $5.76 million for the fiscal year 2015-2016 alone.  

“In consideration of both the financial impact and the increased strain on the Ontario Justice system,” the provincial government’s decision to fund the program should be a no-brainer, Derstine says.

However, the CBC reports the two parties have had unfruitful discussions with both Premier Doug Ford’s new administration and the previous Liberal government.

A statement from Ontario Attorney General Caroline Mulroney to the news outlet said she recognized the “importance of pro bono legal services,” but added the focus of her meetings with PBO was to encourage it “to work with its private sector partners … to find solutions to its long-term funding issues."

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