2021 marks Pro Bono Ontario’s 20th anniversary. As we take stock of what we have accomplished and learned over the years, we are also asking ourselves how we can do more to bridge the gap for vulnerable Ontarians, like seniors. Through our Free Legal Advice Hotline, our Medical-Legal Partnerships, and our court-based centres, PBO has been helping seniors meet their urgent legal needs, addressing issues like housing insecurity, consumer scams, financial exploitation and abuse, and estate planning issues. In our experience, legal advocacy is integral to effective elder care and it should be provided in a manner that addresses the unique challenges they face.

Older adults experience vulnerability among multiple dimensions: they are more likely to live in low-income households, be isolated and become targets for predatory behaviour. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problems they experience. It has contributed to isolation and stress and has put older adults at greater risk. In 2020, calls by seniors to the Free Legal Advice Hotline increased by 32% compared to 2019.

Low computer-literacy and language barriers make many older adults dependent on caregivers to access services and can be a significant barrier in providing effective legal advice. Our older clients are less likely to have found PBO’s Hotline through an online search and more likely to have been referred by a third party. We often receive calls on behalf of older adults who do not speak English well and depend on caregivers to find services and translate.

Likewise, older adults may also need assistance travelling to appointments and therefore may be unable to access traditional, in-person legal services independently. The presence of friends or family can make it more difficult for a lawyer to assess whether a vulnerable client is making decisions on their own behalf. Once an older adult has suffered from financial abuse, it is very difficult, often impossible, to recover stolen or mismanaged assets. Proper advice and planning can prevent financial abuse, but only if the lawyer-client relationship is free of undue influence.

Seniors who call the Hotline report lower incomes than other callers, on average. Some of them may own their own homes, which, far from insulating them, can expose them to increased legal risks in the form of predatory home equipment sales or other forms of exploitation from those who have targeted them based on that asset. For example, 44% of the door-to-door sales scams victims we encounter are seniors. Yet these seniors are often disqualified from receipt of free legal advice based on asset tests, despite struggling to meet increasing home maintenance and utility costs on modest fixed incomes.

We believe seniors should have integrated, barrier-free access to holistic, preventative legal care that increases their security and decreases the incidence of urgent legal need.

Effective care for older adults should be founded on the following pillars:

• PREVENTION: Older adults are better served through preventative and primary legal care delivered before legal issues escalate. Most people recognize when a legal problem has struck, but few know how to spot the risk factors and take steps to protect themselves before the damage is done. Comprehensive, context-specific legal risk assessment must be a part of any plan to deliver wrap-around services to seniors.

• COLLABORATION: Based on our experience pioneering medical-legal partnerships in Canada, embedding legal intake and triage within clinical teams is an effective means of bringing legal services to individuals who lack the means or wherewithal to identify the legal nature of their problem or seek assistance. Trusted workers who interact with seniors in other settings should be given the knowledge and resources to connect them with the help they need. We have found that 96% of families served through our Medical Legal Programs had not sought legal assistance prior to encountering PBO.

• ACCESSIBILITY: Likewise, telephone hotline services are an effective means of providing access to justice to those who cannot access traditional services. The use of a phone line as an entry point reduces technological and mobility-based barriers to legal services. Callers across Ontario can access same-day legal advice as easily as picking up a phone, increasing the likelihood that they will seek help before their problems escalate. 86% of seniors who contact PBO’s Free Legal Advice Hotline indicate that this was the first time they obtained legal assistance for their legal problems.

• ENHANCED LEGAL CARE: Services must scale up in response to degree of need. In some cases, a simple phone consultation can help a senior understand their rights and put their mind at ease. In other cases, whether due to personal limitations or the complexity of the legal issue, callers may need ongoing support to take the next steps necessary to protect themselves or secure their rights. The transition from initial contact to ongoing services should be seamless and avoid creating a further obstacle for the client. Rigid rules and procedures have a disproportionate impact on people who already face barriers to justice, so services must be flexible and adapted to work within client capabilities.

Based on two decades’ experience developing innovative and scalable programs, PBO believes this vision is attainable and is an essential ingredient in any system that aims to delivers access to justice to all Ontarians in need, at any stage of life.