An Analysis of Immigration and Refugee Law Services in Canada

Part Three: The national picture

Summary of Community Organization Immigration and Refugee Law Services

This section presents an overview of the legal services offered by community organizations serving refugees and immigrants, in all ten provinces.

Type of Service Province
B.C. Alta. Sask. Man. Ont. Que. N.B. N.S. P.E.I. Nfld.
Public Legal Education Ltd No Ltd Ltd Yes Yes Yes Ltd No No
Referrals Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Ltd Yes Ltd Yes
Advice Yes Ltd Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No Ltd
Representation Ltd No No Ltd Ltd Ltd Ltd Ltd No Ltd
Language Assistance Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Ltd No Yes

As the above table indicates, the community organizations serving refugees and immigrants, that were interviewed in the ten provinces, are more likely to provide assistance in areas that do not involve specific legal claims. Most notably, this includes Referrals, Advice, and Language Assistance.

Referrals are a service provided by community organizations interviewed in each of the provinces. In many cases, respondents considered the provision of referrals - the connection of clients with appropriate resources - to be a key part of their services. The referral services available in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island are described in the table as "limited" because respondents in these provinces noted that there simply are few resources to which to refer people on immigration and refugee law matters. In each of these provinces, legal aid does not provide any coverage for immigration and refugee law, and there is not a wide range of community groups offering services in this area. Respondents from all of the Atlantic provinces, and from Saskatchewan, did report that demand for services in immigration and refugee law is quite limited, since only small numbers of refugees and immigrants actually arrive in these provinces each year.

Providing advice on immigration and refugee law issues is another function played by many of the community organizations interviewed across the provinces. These agencies tend to be more involved in offering general advice than legal advice, typically basic information about the law, legal processes, and rights and responsibilities. Many agencies emphasized their role as "information providers," with quite a few respondents making a distinction between delivering information and providing advice. For these groups, advice seems to imply that organization staff are directing clients on a particular course of action - a suggestion with which many respondents were uncomfortable.

In terms of the provision of both advice and public legal education, many of the community organizations interviewed reported dealing with a wide range of legal issues outside of federal immigration and refugee law. When asked about their legal services, respondents from these agencies often pointed first to their work on general legal issues of relevance to refugees and immigrants - income tax, social services, labour law and employment standards, family law, and so on. The assistance offered on actual immigration and refugee law matters is generally much more limited.

In terms of legal advice, the activity most often undertaken by community organizations is assistance with the completion of forms, although some groups will also take limited action(s) on a client's behalf (for example, making a call, writing a letter, accompanying a client to meetings). Assistance with forms is a service provided by a wide range of groups, most often for Humanitarian and Compassionate applications, Post-Determination Refugee Claimants in Canada Class applications, and Personal Information Forms. Interestingly, respondents typically did not characterize such activity as a kind of legal advice or assistance until they were asked specifically about the completion of forms. As noted above, for many groups the phrase "legal advice" implies specific direction on a legal course of action - something that very few organizations considered themselves to be doing.

Language assistance is another area in which community organizations are frequently involved. Many of the groups interviewed have translators and interpreters on staff and/or a bank or network of volunteers with various linguistic skills on whom they rely. In many cases, these staff or volunteers will offer linguistic assistance for legal matters, including meetings with lawyers, preparatory work for hearings, and actual legal proceedings. The only provinces in which no language assistance is available for legal work are New Brunswick and P.E.I.

Overall, legal representation is not an area in which most community organizations are regularly involved. Even when organizations reported that they will provide legal representation in some immigration and refugee law matters, this tends not to be a primary area of service delivery. The few organizations that have an established program or mandate to offer legal representation often have legal staff - whether paralegals or lawyers - either doing or supervising such work. Organizations in Quebec specifically highlighted the complexity of laws in the immigration and refugee area as a reason why community agencies are not more involved in delivering legal assistance.

No legal representation is provided by the organizations interviewed in Alberta, Saskatchewan and P.E.I. In Saskatchewan, however, one organization does provide non-legal counsel in the form or moral/emotional support for Inland Claims cases, Convention Refugee Determination, Humanitarian and Compassionate applications, and Post-Determination Refugee Claimants in Canada Class applications. In the remaining seven provinces, legal representation is most often provided by community group staff for Convention Refugee Determination, Humanitarian and Compassionate applications, and Post-Determination Refugee Claimants in Canada Class applications. At least one organization in B.C., Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick reported delivering services in one or all of these issues. In Quebec, the only matter for which legal representation is available is Humanitarian and Compassionate applications. In B.C. and New Brunswick, Convention Refugee Determination is the primary area of coverage.

After the three immigration and refugee law issues listed above, additional matters for which some community organizations provide legal representation are Immigration Appeals Division cases and Adjudication Division cases. One organization in Manitoba occasionally covers Adjudication matters; one organization in Newfoundland deals with Immigration Appeals; and one organization in Ontario will provide legal representation for both Immigration Appeals and Adjudication cases. In Nova Scotia, one organization does not cover Immigration Appeals or Adjudication Division cases, but will provide legal representation for Port of Entry, Inland Claims, and Federal Court matters.


The following tables summarize the problem areas and success stories mentioned by community organization respondents when asked about things that were working well, things that were not working well, and key gaps in the current system for delivering services to refugee and immigrants in their provinces.

Problem areas
Thematic Problem Areas Province
B.C. Alta. Sask. Man. Ont. Que. N.B. N.S. P.E.I. Nfld.
Range of Coverage X X X X X X X X
Funding Issues X X X X X
Levels of Skill and Expertise X X X X X X
Barriers Confronting Refugees X X X X
Language/Cultural Barriers X X X
Use of Call Centres X X
Lack of Co-ordination X

Community agency respondents in the ten provinces identified problem areas similar to those identified by legal aid respondents, although there were some differences in the way these concerns were expressed.

Range of coverage

The range of immigration and refugee services available was a key concern of many community organizations in eight of the ten provinces. Respondents in B.C., Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and P.E.I. all pointed to an overall lack of access to comprehensive legal assistance for refugees and immigrants. Respondents in the four provinces without any legal aid coverage for immigration and refugee law (Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I.) highlighted this as a key reason for the shortage of legal services. Community organization representatives in Quebec also raised the issue of uneven geographic distribution of services, and the gaps that result.

Funding issues

Inadequate funding for immigration and refugee law services was identified as a problem by community organization representatives in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec and New Brunswick. The respondent from B.C. highlighted past and ongoing provincial government cuts to legal aid and community organization funding, as well as the impact of the devolution of responsibility for settlement services from the federal government to the province. Organizations in Alberta pointed out that the high cost of legal assistance means that many people simply cannot access services, a factor that was also raised in Quebec. Organizations in Quebec indicated that a lack of financial support prevents them from providing a broad enough range of services to their clients, and that, as a result, community groups end up working beyond the mandates for which they receive funding. Respondents in Manitoba highlighted the low remuneration lawyers receive as a key reason why there are not enough immigration and refugee lawyers available to handle cases. Finally, community groups in New Brunswick noted that insufficient funding means that some organizations have to rely exclusively on volunteers to deliver services.

Levels of skill and expertise

The shortage of lawyers with expertise in immigration and refugee law issues was raised as an area of concern by community groups in B.C., Manitoba, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. A respondent in B.C. further commented that IRB members in that province do not receive sufficient training.

Respondents in Nova Scotia indicated that, in addition to the shortage of immigration and refugee lawyers, there is a lack of trained translators in the province. A Newfoundland community organization representative suggested that greater consistency in the terminology used by government, legal aid, and community organizations would be desirable to ensure greater consistency in the delivery of services to refugees and immigrants. In Quebec, one respondent suggested that community organization staff who handle immigration and refugee law issues do not receive enough training (although two other respondents expressed the opposite view, as noted below).

Barriers confronting refugees

Respondents in B.C. and Nova Scotia commented that the refugee processing system takes far too long and is subject to unreasonable delays. At the same time, insufficient levels of language and employment training services for refugees were highlighted in B.C. and Quebec, while community organization representatives in Alberta noted that there are no organizations with an explicit mandate to assist refugees in the province. Quebec respondents pointed out that there are too few services available for refugees, particularly in terms of job search assistance, language instruction, and issues other than housing, in general. Organizations in Nova Scotia commented that the absence of any local IRB creates additional obstacles for refugee claimants in the province.

Language and cultural barriers

Community organization respondents in Saskatchewan indicated that the justice system, overall, is poorly equipped to deal with people whose first language is not English. A Quebec organization suggested that it is too difficult to access services in English in the province, while Ontario community agencies commented that legal aid is not sufficiently culturally or linguistically sensitive.

Use of call centres

Community organization respondents from Quebec noted that it is more difficult to access immigration officials through the call centre system that is now in place. A similar concern was raised in New Brunswick with respect to access-to-justice services, generally. Respondents in both provinces felt that a key weakness is the fact that callers cannot speak to the same person about their case on subsequent calls.

Lack of co-ordination

Community organization representatives in Newfoundland expressed the need for more co-ordination among players in the immigration and refugee law system, including governments, legal aid, and community groups. More co-ordination would permit each of these groups to play better the role at which they are best, leading to more efficient and effective client services.

Success stories
Thematic Success Stories Province
B.C. Alta. Sask. Man. Ont. Que. N.B. N.S. P.E.I. Nfld.
Approaches to Service Delivery X X X
Co-operation and Collaboration X X X X X
Levels of Skill and Expertise X X
Online Resources X

As indicated by the above table, far fewer success stories were highlighted by community organizations interviewed in the ten provinces.

Approaches to service delivery

Community organization respondents in B.C. pointed to the availability of initial reception services as a positive feature of the existing immigration and refugee system in the province (although this comment pertains more to settlement services than legal services). In Manitoba, respondents highlighted the role played by the Interfaith Immigration Council in case file preparation as a success story. In addition, the ability of the Council to act as a central processing body for refugees has increased co-ordination of services. In Ontario, a respondent noted that the use of legal aid opinion certificates as a means of establishing merit is working well because it gives community organizations an opportunity to demonstrate why legal aid coverage is needed by their client(s).

Co-operation and collaboration

Community organizations in several provinces pointed to co-operation and collaboration both between legal and community groups (Manitoba, Ontario) and among community groups themselves (B.C., Quebec, P.E.I.) as a positive feature of the current immigration and refugee law system. In Manitoba, the Interfaith Immigration Council was again highlighted in this capacity, while in Ontario the increased availability of legal aid funding for community initiatives was noted.

Levels of skill and expertise

Two respondents in Quebec indicated that community organization staff are well trained to provide their services in the immigration and refugee law area (although, as noted above, one organization disagreed with this assessment).

Online resources

Respondents in Quebec and P.E.I. noted that the availability of online access to documents, forms, and statutes has been a positive development in the immigration and refugee law field.

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