What Happened When COVID-19 Came for Access to Justice: Pro Bono Ontario’s Overnight Shift to Virtual Services

Sometimes you’re forced to grow up fast.

When PBO launched its Free Legal Advice Hotline, we knew it would eventually become a key part of Ontario’s legal services landscape. But, just like everyone else, we never could have predicted what 2020 would bring. Though the Hotline was less than 3 years old and still finding its legs, we made a dramatic pivot in response to COVID-19. We vowed that every single client who could not access our shuttered in-person services would have a place to turn, and that every volunteer who wanted to help them would get the supports they need. Literally overnight, we transformed the Hotline into a fully remote service, and established it as our main point of entry for the public without missing a single day of service. Our investment in the state-of-the-art technology that supports the Hotline paid off dramatically. 

This is what the public needs and deserves. The pandemic has brought an avalanche of legal problems. The people facing these problems are going online for help. As much as we value face-to-face interaction, the realities of physical distancing and lockdowns have forced everyone to adapt. By the millions, people are turning to virtual services to get what they want: safety, speed and quality. Whether it’s grocery shopping, banking, entertainment or exercise, people are skipping crowds and lineups and going remote. Receiving legal advice is no different. PBO has always prided itself on being where the people are. If they are at home, at work or in transit and need to talk, we can, must and will be there to answer the call, listen, and give them sound advice.  

The thousands of people who call us are experiencing massive personal upheaval. Far beyond the physical danger of the virus, COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on their finances, employment and housing. Every day, we see how this disruption is felt disproportionately by lower-income people. We also see how their problems cascade into multiple and deeper problems. The person who calls us when they are temporarily laid may call back when their job loss is permanent, again when their housing is on the brink, or yet again when they are defending a lawsuit over unpaid debts. When the conversation is finished, many clients ask us if they can also ask a question about a problem their children or parents are facing. The devastation is real and pervasive.

To those who seek our help, we are an essential service. To the other community agencies and legal services providers who refer 42% of our clients, we are an open door that will not turn them away. To our volunteer lawyers, we are the engine that harnesses their talent and desire to contribute. As one Hotline volunteer said about the experience, “My life experiences hardly prepared me for our clients’ reality, their grinding down by the pandemic to unimaginable levels. But I was equipped to help them. I am proud of it!”

We have a long road to recovery. The demand for our services has increased 72% over the same period last year. We expect that to increase.

We are determined to meet this demand with the right mix of legal services for everyone who needs us. 

To do so, it has been instructive to look to Ontario’s health care system for tips on addressing service delivery challenges. While it obviously has its own gaps, healthcare does a good job of coordinating services across the sector. For example, it is broadly accepted that primary care should be everyone’s entry point, and that virtual consultations and Telehealth can take a huge burden off doctors’ offices, emergency rooms and the system as a whole. This allows the most serious cases to get the treatment they need as quickly as possible. PBO has adopted this strategy by implementing a triage approach to legal need. We strive to make it as easy as possible for people to find us, we discern their specific needs, then we deliver what the situation requires. 

COVID-19 has been a catalyst for change, but make no mistake: much of this change will outlast the pandemic. It has never been more important to leverage the learning we have done.

Here are a few key lessons from the past 7 months:

  1. Necessity is the mother of invention.  We always planned to experiment with remote services, but the WHO’s March 11 declaration of a pandemic made us figure it out with no time to spare.
  2. Virtual and timely legal advice is the way of the future.  For 78% of our consultations, inquiries are resolved with brief legal services delivered to people wherever they happen to be calling from.
  3. There will always be people who need more. As much as we need slick, modern, streamlined systems, our clients are human beings with diverse needs. We are building internal systems and collaborating with other providers to create enhanced service models for clients who need more help.

Here is the most important and overarching lesson: access to justice can only be achieved with an expansive network of legal partners working together to establish a prominent “front door” for clients, and to give each person who goes through it the tools they need to exit with a solution. With a commitment to large scale triage and coordination, we have the potential to achieve 100% access to justice in Ontario. This is a big aspiration for sure, but PBO learned what is possible when we were forced to evolve this year. Now we want to scale that success and work with our partners to improve the whole system together. 

In the coming months we look forward to using this blog to show you what we are seeing on the frontlines, what our clients are facing, what we are learning, and how we can translate those lessons into a better future. Please join us. 

Thank you for your support.