If you ask a highly skilled corporate lawyer why they’re nervous about volunteering through PBO’s Free Legal Advice Hotline, you will often hear a more or less diplomatic version of: “I practice in a very niche area of law and couldn’t possibly help someone with a real problem.” The irony is that the exact traits that make some corporate lawyers hesitant – the desire to provide excellent service, conscientiousness, and deep commitment to their professional and ethical obligations – make them ideally suited to pro bono service. The fact is that pro bono is not just for litigators.
Milestone anniversaries instinctively spark reflection on what has been and what will be. PBO is proud to be celebrating 20 years of connecting lawyers with those in need. In our opening blog post, we observed that COVID-19 forced us to grow up fast; last year, we faced unprecedented, crushing demand for legal services. We brought a historic number of volunteer lawyers together to meet it. We then equipped those amazing lawyers with our state-of-the-art technology so they could help clients from home.
Many people believe they don’t need a will if they “don’t have anything.” They believe that because anything they own at death will automatically pass to a spouse or children, they need not worry. In fact, low-income Ontarians have the most to lose if someone in their household dies without a will. PBO’s Free Legal Advice Hotline regularly receives calls from people in desperate financial straits because a loved one – who always paid the rent or household bills – has died intestate and the family can’t access their bank account. They find themselves staring down impending eviction or battles with utility companies to keep the heat on. Grieving families who contact us are often overwhelmed by the impenetrable barrier of the probate process, which has historically been lengthy and complex, with no concessions for small estates.
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.
The provincial government is currently undertaking the first review of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) in 15 years. Having answered more than 8,500 consumer calls on the Free Legal Advice Hotline since 2017, PBO believes amendments cannot come soon enough. Most of our suggestions to the government have focussed on the issue we see more often than any other on our consumer line: long-term leases for home equipment that consumers did not want or need and cannot afford, often sold door-to-door. While the Ontario government restricted the door-to-door sale of many products starting March 2018, too many unscrupulous vendors remain undeterred.
The COVID-19 virus has disrupted society and every element of our lives. In few instances is this as evident as in Ontario’s unfolding housing law crisis, which illustrates both the large scale and intimate ways this pandemic is affecting us. Between the economic disruption, lockdown orders and health and safety measures, the pandemic has placed significant pressure on the places where we live, eat, sleep, and (increasingly, if we are lucky) now also work. PBO’s Free Legal Advice Hotline has answered over 10,000 calls from tenants and landlords since the COVID-19 crisis hit.
When we think about access to justice, we also think about fundamental fairness. We think about the fact that the people who call us are often fighting uphill battles against large institutions. We know those institutions are often just doing their job, but we also know that the playing field isn’t level. When you’re an elderly person trying to convince a financing company that your furnace rental contract just isn’t fair, you are swimming against a very strong current. When you’re a tenant on social assistance trying to resist eviction proceedings brought by a large property manager, you are staring up a high, steep mountain. When you’re an employee mulling over a severance package, knowing you are owed more but tempted to sign because you badly need some money, that is not a fair fight
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.