An Analysis of Immigration and Refugee Law Services in Canada
Four organizations serving refugees and immigrants were interviewed in Ontario. The South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario is a non-profit organization seeking to establish a legal clinic to respond to the needs of low-income South Asians in Toronto. This group is pursuing funding from sources including the Ontario Law Foundation, Legal Aid Ontario and the United Way to expand the range of services it offers. The mandate of the Ottawa-Carleton Immigrant Services Organization is to enable newcomers to become equal participants in all aspects of Canadian society through the provision of specialized and innovative services. These services are primarily in the settlement area. Both Hamilton House and the St. Joseph's Refugee Committee provide assistance to refugees, and are affiliated with religious groups.
Available Legal Services
- Public Legal Education and Information
- Most of the community organizations interviewed in Ontario provide some kind of public legal education, ranging from information sessions and workshops for clients to law reform workshops and training sessions for organization staff and clients.
- All of the agencies interviewed refer clients to other organizations for additional legal services that staff are unable to provide. These referrals include to legal aid, private bar immigration and refugee lawyers, and community groups serving refugees and immigrants. One organization's respondent characterized it as specifically a referral agency.
- Two organizations interviewed provide advice on a variety of immigration and refugee law issues. A third organization noted that its programming will be expanded this year to include the provision of advice.
- Two organizations interviewed provide legal representation in a variety of immigration and refugee law issues. A third organization noted that its programming will be expanded this year to include the provision of legal representation.
- Language Assistance
- Three organizations offer language assistance, through multilingual seminars or information sessions, and some interpretation and translation services.
Public legal education
The South Asian Legal Clinic provides other community agencies with legal information seminars on a variety of immigration and refugee matters and in different languages. According to the respondent, the issues addressed include sponsorship, available community and legal resources, and the process and steps involved in various components of the immigration and refugee process. The Clinic also does some law reform work, providing information on how legislative changes affect certain client populations. The Clinic also distributes and translates written materials produced by other organizations. Hamilton House offers free training in the refugee determination process to interested community organizations and distributes information to clients through its Web site. The respondent from St. Joseph's Refugee Committee noted that it distributes general legal information materials produced by other organizations.
The Ottawa Carleton Immigration Services Organization provides what respondents characterized as an "extensive range" of workshops and legal information on a variety of issues related to refugees and immigrants. The examples suggested during the interview include refugee sponsorship and applications for landing.
Overall, all respondents suggested that referrals are made by organization staff as appropriate to the needs of the client, and based on the expertise of staff and available programs. With respect to legal issues, all organizations noted that they do refer people to legal aid, although the representative of the St. Joseph's Refugee Committee noted that, for the population it tends to serve, legal aid does not often come up. The respondent suggested that the organization is operating "on the street," implying that the services being provided address more immediate needs, such as hunger.
The respondent from the South Asian Legal Clinic explicitly noted that the network of community legal clinics funded by legal aid as a valuable resource for low-income persons. This organization refers people to legal aid community clinics that have appropriate language resources to meet the needs of their clientele, as well as to other community organizations that have ties to the South Asian community. South Asian Legal Clinic staff also refer clients to private bar lawyers and to legal clinics affiliated with law schools. The St. Joseph's Refugee Committee also noted that it has contacts with some private bar lawyers, and that clients may also be directed to community centres.
Respondents from Hamilton House and the Ottawa-Carleton Immigrant Services Organization noted that clients are referred to other legal resources in the community when staff lack the appropriate knowledge to handle a case, or if the case is complex enough to require more specialized legal assistance. However, the Hamilton House representative noted that it will try to meet a client's needs if he or she has been denied legal aid assistance, and if there are no other options available.
Of the two organizations currently providing advice, Hamilton House handles this service through an intake process similar to the legal aid system. Through this system clients may receive either general assistance (for example, information on what to expect from the immigration and refugee law process, or a referral to another organization) or more specific legal advice pertaining to the circumstances of their particular case. This may include assistance with the completion of forms (such as Personal Information Forms) or other assistance in the areas of Inland Claims, Convention Refugee Determination, Adjudication (although they have not had any cases in this area), Humanitarian and Compassionate applications, Post-Determination Refugee Claimants in Canada Class applications, and International Tribunal appeals. The respondent pointed out that while staff technically do not provide advice in Federal Court cases, since there is a lawyer on staff this might be something they could do. It was also noted that organization staff may be open to providing assistance in other immigration and refugee law issues, depending on the case and the available resources.
According to a respondent from the Ottawa-Carleton Immigrant Services Organization, settlement workers provide an "extensive" amount of legal information and direct legal services to clients in a variety of immigration and refugee issues, including matters of law. The respondent from this organization noted that a high percentage of the questions directed to settlement workers concern legal matters related to immigrating to Canada - making a refugee claim, visitors visas, temporary work permits, family sponsorship, and so on. The legal information and assistance provided by settlement workers is so comprehensive that the organization considers it tantamount to a paralegal service.
If a legal matter is within the expertise of Ottawa-Carleton staff, they will provide advice or assistance. If the issue is too complex or requires knowledge that staff lack, clients will be referred to another resource. According to the respondent from this organization, the issues in which settlement workers provide assistance are Inland claims, Convention Refugee Determination, and Humanitarian and Compassionate applications. Clients are more often referred to another organization or to legal aid for matters concerning Immigration Appeals, Adjudication, and Post-Determination Refugee Claimants in Canada Class applications. Interestingly, this agency also co-operates with legal aid in running an advice service - once a week, a legal aid staff lawyer comes to the organization to provide assistance to clients. Settlement staff at the organization will arrange appointments for clients, usually 30 minutes in length. The legal aid staff lawyer may review completed forms or applications (for example, permanent residence applications), address a wide range of problems encountered by the client, or refer the client to another organization or to legal aid for further assistance. No legal representation is provided through this service unless the client is referred to legal aid to apply for a certificate.
The South Asian Legal Clinic respondent noted that while this organization currently does not have an advice function, this is part of a planned service expansion that is under way. In the next few months, this organization plans to have the capacity to provide both general and legal advice to clients in immigration and refugee law. At present, clients are generally referred to legal aid or to legal aid community clinics.
As noted in the above table, two organizations will provide some legal representation in immigration and refugee law. The Ottawa-Carleton Immigrant Services Organization provides legal representation for immigration and refugee law cases, although the respondent noted that this kind of assistance is available only to persons who are not eligible for legal aid. The provision of legal representation is contingent on the availability of sufficient resources. The three staff members who provide both legal advice and representation are in the office only two days a week, so there is a limited amount of time for such cases. If settlement workers are involved in providing legal representation, they always do so under the supervision of a lawyer.
According to the representative of the Ottawa-Carleton Immigrant Services Organization, legal representation is available for matters concerning Inland Claims, Convention Refugee Determination, Adjudication (although it has not had any cases in this area), Humanitarian and Compassionate applications, Post-Determination Refugee Claimants in Canada Class applications, and International Tribunal appeals. However, the respondent suggested that the organization is open to providing assistance in other areas, depending on the issue in question and the resources available. Ottawa-Carleton staff lawyers also do some legal work on a legal aid certificate basis for immigration and refugee law cases.
Hamilton House also will provide legal representation to clients who are unable to access such services through legal aid. This kind of assistance may be provided for cases concerning Convention Refugee Determination, Immigration Appeals Division, Adjudication, Humanitarian and Compassionate applications, Post-Determination Refugee Claimants in Canada Class applications, and International Tribunal appeals. Any legal assistance representation provided by Hamilton House staff is done under the supervision of a staff lawyer.
The South Asian Legal Clinic respondent noted that while this organization currently does not provide legal representation, this is part of a planned service expansion that is under way. At present, clients are generally referred to legal aid or to legal aid community clinics.
The South Asian Legal Clinic reported that its seminars and information sessions incorporate the provision of translation assistance to those who need it. In addition, some informational materials are available in other languages. These services are particularly available for Asian languages. Hamilton House provides Spanish-English translation only and, as a result, receives many clients who require this kind of assistance. If other language skills are needed, the respondent from this group reported that it will try to find volunteers or rely on clients' friends and relatives. The Ottawa-Carleton Immigrant Services Organization provides interpretation and translation services for preparatory visits and meetings with lawyers. This service is not available for formal legal proceedings.
STAFFING AND FUNDING INFORMATION
Types of staff
The two organizations that provide only information and referrals on immigration and refugee law matters rely exclusively on volunteers - they have no paid staff. Due to the planned expansion in the range of services offered by one of these organizations, the respondent noted that it hopes to hire one lawyer and one community legal worker in the future.
One organization providing legal advice and representation employs three community workers and one lawyer, in addition to relying on volunteers. The other organization offering advice and legal representation characterizes its staff members as settlement workers. This organization also relies on both volunteers and students, and legal aid staff do come to this agency once a week to provide legal assistance to clients.
Sources of funding
Two organizations rely primarily on private funders, with one also receiving funds from municipal government. One of these two organizations expects to receive funding in the future from Legal Aid Ontario and the Law Foundation for an expanded range of legal assistance. This organization characterized its current funding structure as unstable. The other of the two organizations that receives private funding suggested that funding is relatively stable.
A third organization receives funding from churches, community organizations, and donations, with some limited support from the provincial government. The respondent from this group suggested that its funding was relatively stable in terms of the overall amount, but problems arise due to the increasing number of clients using its services without any corresponding increase in financial support. The final organization receives funding from the federal, provincial and municipal governments, as well as from the United Way. This organization characterized its funding as unstable despite the fact that it has been in place for over 20 years.
Three of the four organizations interviewed in Ontario offer settlement services as well as legal assistance, but none of them are exclusively settlement groups. Since some form of legal assistance is offered by each organization, separate information on settlement services in Ontario has not been included.
IMPRESSIONS ABOUT THE SERVICES AVAILABLE TO REFUGEES AND IMMIGRANTS
Insufficient legal assistance
Three respondents noted that, while it is good that there is a system in place to allow low-income people to get legal assistance, legal aid in Ontario remains insufficient. One representative suggested that there is a growing number of people who still lack the right kind of support (for example, 10 percent of refugee claimants do not receive legal aid, and not all community legal clinics cover all immigration and refugee law issues). At the same time, the number of immigrants and refugees arriving in Ontario is increasing. For this respondent, organizations serving refugees and immigrants are trying to fill the gap created by the lack of sufficient services and the increasing demand for these services.
A second respondent also suggested that there are too few alternatives for people who have been denied legal aid coverage to receive legal support. This representative suggested that in view of the limited resources of voluntary associations, the situation that results tends to be a kind of "triage" with respect to determining who will and won't receive assistance.
A third representative argued that there is a "total lack of information" for people who are poor and disadvantaged in some legal areas, but the examples highlighted were administrative law (wills, contracts), and not immigration and refugee law matters. For this respondent, the lack of education about the law is the key gap underlying this problem.
Cultural and linguistic sensitivity
One respondent suggested that the services offered by Legal Aid Ontario are not sufficiently culturally and linguistically sensitive. According to the respondent, this would undermine a person's access to justice, creating a key gap in the assistance available to refugees and immigrants in the province. The respondent argued that it is important to ensure that refugees and immigrants can get help with their legal problems in a comfortable and easy manner.
Legal aid support for community initiatives
One representative suggested that the number of projects being funded through the legal aid system has increased, and that this is positive for community organizations that have an opportunity to access this funding.
Use of merit testing
A different respondent noted that the use of opinion certificates to evaluate the merit of a case is working well. This provides an opportunity for the legal representative in a case to convince legal aid that a certificate is warranted, as well as ensuring that the most deserving cases receive coverage.
One respondent commented that it does not make sense to divide legal issues affecting low-income people into separate categories (for example, immigration law versus refugee law versus poverty law). This respondent suggested that a more holistic and comprehensive approach to legal issues affecting poor people would be more appropriate and effective.
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