At this point it’s clear that COVID-19 is a public health emergency that has laid bare socio-economic inequities. One of the ways this has been expressed is through the occurrence and evolution of legal needs during the pandemic and how public policy decisions impacted the incidence of unmet legal needs. And while we inch towards a return to normalcy, it is important that we learn what lessons we can from this experience and be better prepared to meet the needs of the public in times of widespread crisis. Our program data from 2020 provides an important case study.

COVID Is Having a Lasting Impact on How People Seek Help

PBO’s started the Free Legal Advice Hotline in September 2017 to create a low-barrier point of entry to access to justice for Ontarians who could not reach traditional in-person services. But its value as a safe and efficient means of getting help for everyday legal problems help became obvious during the pandemic. Call volume increased both because more people began experiencing legal problems and because other service providers were closed or operating at reduced capacity for long periods. Notably, even since vaccines have become available and the province has reopened, demand continues to grow. Furthermore, 89% of callers indicate that the Hotline represents the first time they got legal help for their problems. This suggests that the public has become accustomed to remote service and may prefer this more convenient means of getting help

Legal Problems Are Extremely Sensitive to External Stressors

Given the events of 2020, it is unsurprising that so many people experienced employment law issues. That year, the Hotline answered 4,092 calls from people experiencing problems at work, 65% of which related to job loss or legal problems created by the pandemic. The latter included questions about government benefits, Infectious Disease Emergency Leave, workplace accommodations and even whether their employers could compel frontline workers to pay for their job-required PPE.

What is surprising is how quickly world events expressed themselves in the incidence of employment law needs. As the table below reveals, COVID-19 was already affecting workers in February 2020 – weeks before the WHO’s declaration of a global pandemic. Moreover, COVID-19 legal questions were at their highest between March and July. This aligns almost exactly with the tightest provincial lockdown measures (between the declaration of a state of emergency on March 17 and large-scale Stage 3 reopening on July 31) and the period when the bulk of emergency employment legislation was introduced. Employment law problems only began to abate as the economy reopened.
The pandemic’s impact on housing problems took slightly longer to crest but they were equally influenced by the virus and related policy decisions. In 2020, the Hotline provided 5,241 consultations to people with housing problems that ranged from routine reasonable enjoyment issues, to disputes between roommates about complying with public safety measures, to students seeking to cancel rental agreements when it became clear that universities would be closed indefinitely. Issues related to housing insecurity began to climb in May, presumably as the effects of unemployment and income insecurity took hold. But evictions were held in check between March 19 and July 31, during the first eviction moratorium enacted by the province. Inquiries about evictions spiked as soon as the moratorium was lifted and did not begin to abate again until the government prepared to impose the second moratorium in January 2021.

PBO’s medical-legal partnerships also reflected the pandemic’s course in 2020. These partnerships have been in effect since 2009 and are available in every children’s hospital in Ontario. They work by embedding a triage lawyer within clinical teams to help social workers identify their clients’ health-harming legal needs and to provide direct legal services to affected families. Historically, the most common inquiries at the SickKids site are in the legal areas of employment law, immigration law, healthcare access, family law, and consent and capacity. However, as borders and schools closed, the prevalence of immigration and education law problems declined, and novel problems began to emerge.

Between April 1 and June 30, the need for caregivers to take time off work was displaced by caregivers facing layoffs or fundamental changes to their employment conditions, or caregivers in frontline environments struggling to obtain health and safety accommodations on the job. Most also struggled to navigate new government-relief programs.

Likewise, housing problems became more prevalent as families struggled to make payments, and neighbours, now working from home, brought reasonable enjoyment complaints alleging disruptions by special needs children who were also forced to stay at home and away from supportive programs. In 2020, we found these types of problems ebbed and flowed in time to lockdown and reopening orders.

Lessons Learned

  1. The speed at which the pandemic altered the incidence of unmet legal needs tells us that legal problems are societal problems. Low-income Ontarians are extremely vulnerable to these types of stressors and face highly destabilizing problems as the result of circumstances over which they have no control.
  2. Access to timely legal assistance is critical.
  3. Legal service providers need to be extremely agile. The flexibility to shift operations to remote services overnight and respond to emerging issues across multiple areas of law made it possible for PBO to continue to provide responsive service throughout the pandemic, when those services were most needed.