An Analysis of Poverty Law Services in Canada

Executive summary

Scope and methodology

This report provides a descriptive profile of the poverty law legal aid services offered in each of the Canadian provinces and the Northwest Territories[1] , and a sample of the poverty law legal services delivered by community organizations in each of the provinces. Since there is no single definition of "poverty law," the analysis developed in this report focusses on six traditional poverty law issues: Employment Insurance (EI), the Canada Pension Plan/Quebec Pension Plan (CPP/QPP) and Old Age Security (OAS), income assistance, housing and landlord/tenant, workers' compensation, and debtor/creditor. However, this should not be considered an exhaustive list of poverty law issues.

The information on provincial legal aid plans presented in Part One was collected through a review of annual reports and other relevant literature, a series of interviews with key provincial informants, and the quantitative data provided by the plans. Interview questions addressed staffing, service provision, and the strengths and weaknesses of available services. Data collection charts were prepared in advance of the interviews for ease of distribution, but the results of this process were still uneven. Respondents tended to compile information into new charts of their own creation that accorded with case-tracking systems in their jurisdiction. In combination with significant differences in the way in which legal aid is delivered across Canada, this lack of consistent reporting complicated efforts to compare jurisdictional data.

The information on community organizations providing poverty law services, in Part Two of the report, was collected through key informant interviews and a limited amount of quantitative data available from the organizations. Legal aid respondents were initially asked for suggestions of community groups to interview, with further contacts being sought from this first round of organizational representatives, if necessary. Interview questions covered the services offered by organizations, staffing and funding issues, and impressions concerning opportunities and challenges confronting the poverty law system.

As with legal aid, data collection charts were prepared in advance of the interviews with community group respondents. While respondents typically did complete the charts in the form provided, several expressed frustration or confusion about how to classify their clients into the pre-determined categories. On one hand, this was likely due to the fact that many community groups do not view public legal education, general advice, legal advice, and so on, as discrete services, and, accordingly, found it difficult to classify the needs of their services in this manner. On the other hand, many groups either do not collect any data on the clients they serve or do not collect this data in as detailed a manner as was requested on the data collection charts.

Summary of legal aid poverty law services

The table below summarizes the types of services offered in each of the jurisdictions that provide legal aid coverage for poverty issues.

Table 1: Summary of Available Poverty Law Services by Jurisdiction
Type of Service Jurisdiction
B.C. Alta. Man. Ont. Que. N.S. Nfld. N.W.T.
General advice/assistance Yes No Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Legal advice/assistance Yes No Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes
Legal Representation Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Public Legal Education Yes No No Yes No No No Some


As the chart below makes clear, the volume of cases handled in B.C. and Ontario is on a different scale from those in the other jurisdictions (with the likely exception of Quebec, although no data is available there, given that no distinction is made between full service and advice cases). While this is no doubt linked in part to the larger population of these provinces, it also speaks to the fact that that B.C. and Ontario have a much more established and comprehensive system in place for delivering non-tariff legal aid services like advice. While several other provinces have an advice component to their poverty law services, they simply do not have the same kind of capacity as B.C. and Ontario. Manitoba has only one poverty law legal aid office in Winnipeg, and Nova Scotia one poverty law staff lawyer in Halifax. The Northwest Territories relies on Native Court Workers to provide legal services to remote communities in a manner reminiscent of community offices in B.C. and Ontario, but respondents emphasized the underdeveloped nature of available poverty law services and the limited assistance available.

Jurisdiction Number of Clients Explanation
B.C. 24,948 Intake + summary advice
Manitoba 46 Plus an untracked number of drop-in clients
Ontario 128,408 Summary advice + brief services
Quebec - Not available
Nova Scotia 32 Within the administrative tribunals category
N.W.T. 47 Plus an untracked number of clients assisted by Court workers and duty counsel

B.C., Manitoba, Ontario, and, to some extent, the Northwest Territories divide the advice services they deliver into two different levels. These levels are typically distinguished by the amount of assistance received by clients at each stage. The lower level of service typically involves a brief consultation on the telephone or in person, and the provision of basic information or a referral to another agency. No specific action is taken on the client's behalf, and there are no eligibility requirements. The second level of advice service tends to be more involved, and often includes advocacy for a client (for example, making calls or writing letters, research, accompaniment to meetings, assistance with the completion of self-help kits). Eligibility testing may be used at this stage.

Table 3: Number of Clients Receiving Advice by Type of Service

British Columbia
Type of Service Number of Clients
Intake 22,806
Summary Advice 2,142

Type of Service Number of Clients
Drop-in Not tracked
Informal 46

Type of Service Number of Clients
Summary Advice 101,482
Brief Services 26,926

Type of Service Number of Clients
Law Line Not tracked
Advice Certificate 47

3.* The advice provided by Court workers and duty counsel lawyer may fit into one or both of these categories. However, detailed data is not available on the types of services provided or numbers of clients.

In all jurisdictions, legal aid staff members are the primary source of advice on poverty law matters. In the case of Manitoba and Nova Scotia, staff lawyers exclusively deliver advice. In B.C., Ontario and the N.W.T., other legal professionals (paralegals, community legal workers, Court workers) provide advice to clients in addition to staff lawyers. The N.W.T. is the only jurisdiction to issue certificates to private bar lawyers specifically for the provision of advice. Private bar lawyers in Quebec also work on a certificate basis and may provide advice on poverty law matters, but respondents did not identify a specific advice certificate category, such as in the N.W.T. Although Alberta has no formal program for the provision of advice on poverty law matters, respondents did note that some limited advice may be provided by private bar lawyers during the opinion stage of a case.

The only provinces for which information is available on the advice caseload for individual legal issues are B.C. and Ontario. Caseload data indicates that more legal aid assistance is provided for poverty law issues under provincial jurisdiction than for those under federal jurisdiction. In Ontario, housing stands out as a particularly important issue.

A very limited amount of data was provided by legal aid respondents on the cost of delivering poverty law advice services. This data is so limited that few conclusions can be drawn concerning relative costs, particularly given that reported costs vary quite widely among jurisdictions. This is likely due at least in part to differences in the kinds of cases and services included in cost figures, and differences in the way in which cases are reported and tracked. Further careful investigation on specific cost issues is needed before reliable comparisons among jurisdictions can be made.


The chart below indicates that the number of clients receiving legal representation for poverty law matters in B.C., Ontario and Quebec far exceeds the quantity of services delivered in other jurisdictions (although numbers for Quebec may include some clients who receive only advice). Respondents in Alberta reported that poverty law is not really considered a separate category of legal aid coverage, so the services available in this area are limited at best. Winnipeg has only one Poverty Law Office, and this office is responsible for most of the poverty law work done by staff lawyers. Nova Scotia has only one staff lawyer regularly working in poverty law, and respondents in Newfoundland reported that while staff lawyers deliver some poverty law services, this is not a primary coverage area for legal aid.

Table 4: Number of Clients Receiving Poverty Law Legal Representation4.*
Jurisdiction Number of Cases Explanation
B.C. 5,948 Includes all poverty law issues.
Alberta 49 Includes EI, WCB, social assistance, open-ended tribunals.
Manitoba 233 Includes certificate cases on income assistance, landlord/tenant, WCB, other administrative. Also includes certificate-equivalent cases.
Ontario 6,621 Includes certificate cases in all poverty law issues.
16,607 Includes Community Legal Clinic cases in all poverty law issues.
Quebec4.$ 25,686 Includes EI, QPP, social assistance, rental housing, WCd.
Nova Scotia 15 Includes all cases in Administrative Tribunals category.
Nfld - No data
N.W.T. 12 Includes income assistance, landlord/tenant, WCB. Does not include Native Court Worker or presumed eligibility cases.
TOTAL 55,171  

Legal aid staff are the primary persons involved in the delivery of legal representation in poverty law matters. B.C., Ontario and the Northwest Territories rely on both staff lawyers and other legal professionals (paralegals/community legal workers/Native Court workers) to provide legal representation. Private bar lawyers in the Northwest Territories also provide some legal representation in poverty law matters on a certificate basis. Only staff lawyers provide legal representation in poverty law matters in Alberta, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, while both staff and private bar lawyers are used in Manitoba and Quebec.

The chart below outlines available data on poverty law cases by individual legal issue. The data in this chart is not entirely accurate, given that some provinces amalgamate several poverty law issues into a single category, making the disaggregation of data difficult. Caseloads for EI and CPP/QPP/OAS - poverty law issues under federal jurisdiction - are particularly under-reported given that separate case counts are not available for several provinces that extend coverage in these areas, notably Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia.

Table 5: Number of Poverty Law Cases by Legal Issue5.*
Jurisdiction Income Assistance Landlord/Tenant, Housing Debtor/Creditor WCB EI CPP/QPP/OAS
B.C. 1,816 713 440 250 192 224
Alberta       30 1  
Manitoba5.$ 120 9   15    
Ontario 1,563 3,459        
Quebec5.# 13,744 6,284   3,856 953 849
N.W.T.5.% 4 7   1    
TOTAL 17,247 10,472 440 4,152 1,146 1,073

Despite the under-reporting of federal poverty law issues, it is clear from the above chart that the provincial jurisdiction issues of income assistance and landlord/tenant-housing disputes are most frequently the areas in which legal representation is provided. Income assistance is the area in which B.C., Manitoba and Quebec reported the largest number of cases. In Ontario, the family benefits category is by far the largest area of legal representation, followed by housing, other income maintenance, and welfare assistance. Housing comprises the largest portion of the poverty law caseload in the Northwest Territories (particularly if even some of the 93 cases in which Court workers were involved in some capacity are included). Only in Alberta do income and/or housing matters fail to top the poverty law legal representation caseload. In this province, the largest number of poverty law cases are in the workers' compensation area.

A limited amount of data on the cost of providing legal representation in poverty law matters is available for B.C., Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia. As with advice, differences in the way in which cost data has been reported make it difficult to draw any useful conclusions, or to provide reliable comparisons among jurisdictions.

Public legal education

Only B.C. and Ontario offer extensive public legal education services in the poverty law area, including publications, library reference services, educational events, and so on. One of Ontario's Community Legal Clinics - Community Legal Education Ontario - has a specific mandate for public legal education.

Representatives in Manitoba and Nova Scotia indicated that clients are generally referred to community-based legal information organizations for educational materials, while respondents from the Northwest Territories indicated that little public legal education is offered on poverty law, due to budget constraints. According to respondents, no poverty law education services are offered directly by legal aid in Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

[1] Neither Nunavut nor the Yukon provide poverty law legal aid service.

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