Toronto Legal Clinics under Threat of Closure

In 2013 Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) announced that the province’s community legal clinics needed to “provide more clinic law services in a more efficient and effective manner.”[1] Fearing funding cuts, several Toronto legal clinic executive directors made a deal with LAO; they would develop a plan to make the legal clinic system more “efficient” and in the meantime, LAO would agree not to cut their funding. The Directors call their plan the GTA Legal Clinic Transformation Project. Its aim is to close the existing legal clinics and to replace them with three mega-clinics for the entire GTA (Greater Toronto Area). [2]

The seventeen legal clinics currently operating in the GTA provide legal defense to low-income people facing eviction, wage theft, deportation, and being cut off social assistance. A few of these legal clinics have a history of supporting community organizing and advocacy work such as tenant associations and campaigns for access to services for non-status immigrants and refugees. Legal clinics also offer a small number of fast-disappearing decent, public sector jobs.

Closing neighbourhood legal clinics will mean reduced access to legal services. People in need of legal assistance will have to travel greater distances to get it, and will be screened before ever receiving service. Legal clinic workers will lose their jobs and be forced to compete for employment in the new mega-clinics. Workers in the mega-clinics will be burdened with even heavier caseloads and will have a new layer of middle management to deal with.[3] Both the staff of legal clinics and the people they serve will be hurt by their closures.

Defending Legal Clinics

While the Unions and the activist Left paint themselves as the champions of public services, they generally fail to effectively organize those most affected by cuts and modernization schemes. They make futile appeals to the State, instead of bringing service users and workers together in any serious way. They mobilize their tiny base of activists to lobby politicians, circulate petitions, and hold protest rallies—tactics which are easily ignored by those in power.

While we can’t rely on others to do it for us, those of us who work in legal clinics and those of us who use these services can challenge these proposed closures. We work and live in the same neighbourhoods together. We are physically present in the same spaces—in the legal clinic itself, in the libraries and community centres, and on the streets. We have a shared interest in our neighbourhoods being places where we can continue to exist and shared spaces that we can work together to improve.

Together workers and service users can make plans and carry them out. We can talk to our neighbours and other workers in our area about what’s happening to our legal clinic. We can make it clear that we have no intention of allowing our legal clinic to be shut down. If need be, we can occupy our legal clinic and collectively decide together what services it ought to provide—transforming it into a neighbourhood resource that we control, rather than merely a service that is provided to us. If we feel strongly about keeping the legal clinics in our neighbourhoods, if we feel a sense ownership over them, then before they are taken from us, let's act like they're ours to begin with.

[1] LAO Clinic Law Services Strategic Direction, 2013

[2] GTA Legal Clinics Transformation Project Memorandum of Understanding

[3] GTA Legal Clinics Transformation Project Vision Report, Figure 2, pg. 14


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