On any given day, there are five caseworkers at the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO) travelling across the GTA to help a booming but scattered community.
The tiny clinic, based in North York, now runs eight satellite locations in Brampton, Mississauga, Scarborough, Markham and Newmarket to meet the specialized needs of clients of South Asian origin, many of them newcomers to Canada.
Despite a caseload that rises every year, the clinic’s annual grant from the province has remained at about $640,000 ever since it got permanent government funding in 2007.
Ontario plans to inject an extra $94 million into the legal aid system over the next three years, but legal clinics like SALCO that are designed to serve the linguistic and cultural needs of specific ethnocultural communities are concerned about how it will be allocated among the province’s 76 clinics. Legal clinics are expected to get just one-fifth of the pie, with the rest going to private lawyers paid through legal aid certificates, and duty counsels deployed at local courts.
Three of these ethnocultural clinics — SALCO, the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, and African Canadian Legal Clinic — are worried they’ll be left out in the cold as the system gets its first funding boost since 2001.
One model being floated by Legal Aid Ontario would base funding on the poverty rate of the population served within the geographical boundaries of a community legal clinic.
Where does that leave a clinic with no neighbourhood borders?
“We serve everyone who self-identifies as South Asian. They include people from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and South Asians from the African continent and Caribbean. There are nine South Asian languages spoken at our clinic,” said SALCO’s executive director Shalini Konanur.
“We serve no boundaries and have clients coming from Windsor, London and Peterborough for help. Our concern is, if we only count the number of poor people in our service areas for funding, it would not capture the work that we do here.”
According to Konanur, SALCO’s workload has skyrocketed over the past few years, from 1,980 clients in 2011 to 3,070 in 2014.
“Immigration from South Asian countries is high, and it’s hard for (immigrants) to find meaningful employment. There are many who are here now on temporary permits, in precarious status. Language is a huge barrier,” Konanur explained.
Avvy Go, executive director of the Chinese & Southeast Asian clinic, said Legal Aid Ontario should allocate the new funding through an “equity lens” that takes into consideration the unique circumstances of minority and newcomer communities.
The three clinics are urging Legal Aid Ontario also to dig into poverty rates by race and ethnicity before dispensing funding.
“We are one of the smallest and busiest clinics in the system, serving well over 2,000 clients a year,” said Go. “Yet the number of LAO-funded positions has remained at five since 1988, even though the population of the communities we serve has more than doubled. Many mainstream clinics do not even take immigration cases, and they refer them to us,” she said.
“When considering the increase in allocation to our three clinics, LAO should use the actual poverty rates experienced by people of African, Chinese, South Asian and Southeast Asian descent, and apply those rates to the population served by each clinic.”
Legal Aid Ontario said it could not comment for this story because it is still “talking things over with the legal clinics, who are our partners.”
Lenny Abramowicz, of the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario, said neighbourhood poverty rates are a useful measure for allocating funding, but other factors should also be taken into account when assessing need, such as cultural and linguistic barriers.
“I have no doubt there’s a crying demand in every community. There is not a single clinic that’s not operating at capacity,” said Abramowicz, whose group represents 75 of the 76 community legal clinics in Ontario.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all answer . . . I don’t see (different funding models) as mutually exclusive. A balance has to be struck.”
The Chinese & Southeast Asian legal clinic began working with the Scarborough-based Centre for Immigrant & Community Services (CICS) in 2013 to deliver services one morning a week to local residents based on need.
“The satellite service is a godsend for our clients,” said Mei Tin Lee, a CICS program director. “It can be hard for them to commute to the legal clinic downtown from Markham and Scarborough. Many are put off by the lack of language support and cultural understanding at the mainstream clinics.”