An Analysis of Poverty Law Services in Canada


Summary of Legal Aid Poverty Law Services

In this section, an overview is developed of the services available through legal aid in each of the jurisdictions providing coverage for poverty law matters. For the purposes of this summary, the three provinces that provide no legal aid coverage in poverty law have been omitted, namely Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. It is important to recall that all comments concerning B.C. reflect the poverty law legal aid services available prior to significant funding cuts and program restructuring currently being implemented. Further analysis of the poverty law coverage that remains after the implementation of these changes will be necessary to generate an accurate picture of the services available in B.C.

Types of poverty law legal aid services

The table below summarizes the types of services offered in each of the jurisdictions with poverty law legal aid coverage. As is illustrated by this table, the most consistent area of service provision is legal representation - all of the provinces and the Northwest Territories offer at least some legal representation in poverty law cases. The availability of general and legal advice is somewhat more limited, with Alberta and Newfoundland lacking established programs in this area. Public legal education on poverty law is the most limited aspect of legal aid services, with only B.C. and Ontario having comprehensive programs in place in this area.

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 Some

Limitations in the amount and kind of data available in each jurisdiction, as well as significant differences in the way in which poverty law cases are tracked, complicate efforts to provide comparisons. However, available data collected on the advice and legal representation components of poverty law legal aid programs is compiled and discussed below.

Total Number of Clients Receiving Poverty Law Advice
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

As the above chart makes clear, the volume of cases handled in B.C. and Ontario is on a different scale than in the other jurisdictions (with the likely exception of Quebec although no data is available 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 such as advice. The networks of community offices in each of these provinces provide venues well adapted to addressing poverty law issues, in terms of both the available range of services (advice as well as representation) and the expertise of staff (lawyers and paralegals or community legal workers). In addition, these local offices are grounded in the communities they serve through community member representation on governing boards. This permits local offices to tailor services to the needs of residents, and respond to changing needs and priorities.

Despite not having the same kind of capacity as B.C. and Ontario, several other provinces do have an advice component to their poverty law services. Manitoba has one Poverty Law Office in Winnipeg through which clients can get advice, and Nova Scotia one poverty law staff lawyer stationed in Halifax who advises clients. The Northwest Territories relies on Native Court workers to provide advice services to remote communities in a manner reminiscent of community offices in B.C. and Ontario. However, respondents in this jurisdiction emphasized the underdeveloped nature of available poverty law services, and the correspondingly more limited amount of assistance available.

B.C., Manitoba, Ontario and, to some extent, the Northwest Territories divide the advice services they deliver into two different levels. Specific information on the way in which advice is delivered in Quebec and Newfoundland is not available, and Nova Scotia has a single advice classification (summary services). In those jurisdictions with two advice stages, the levels are typically distinguished by the amount of assistance received by clients at each stage. The lowest level of service typically involves 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 on a client's behalf (for example, making calls or writing letters, research, accompaniment to meetings, assistance with the completion of self-help kits). Some provinces have time guidelines for this level of service - in B.C. it is expected to take no more than three hours, and in Ontario no more than two hours. Eligibility testing may be applied in determining who receives this more in-depth kind of assistance.

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

1.* The advice provided by Court workers and duty counsel lawyers 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, it is legal aid staff members who are primarily involved in delivering advice on poverty law matters. In the case of both Manitoba and Nova Scotia, advice is exclusively delivered by staff lawyers. In B.C., Ontario and the N.W.T., other legal professionals (paralegals, community legal workers, Native 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 work on a certificate basis and may provide some advice on poverty law matters, but respondents did not identify a specific advice certificate category in the same manner as in the N.W.T. Although Alberta has no formal program for the provision of advice on poverty law, respondents did note that some limited advice may be provided by private bar lawyers during the opinion stage of a case. However, eligibility testing does apply to this function.

The only provinces for which advice caseload information is available for individual legal issues are B.C. and Ontario. In B.C., by far the largest areas for intake cases in 2000-2001 were non-tariff family law, administration matters, and non-tariff criminal law. All other issues constituted less than 10 percent of the total intake caseload. Of the four poverty law issues under provincial jurisdiction targeted in this project, income assistance, debtor/creditor, and housing were the largest caseload areas.

With respect to poverty law issues under federal jurisdiction, only income tax/GST comprised more than 5 percent of B.C.'s total intake caseload in the 2000-2001 fiscal year. The two federal issues specifically included in the data collection process - CPP/OAS and Employment Insurance - were much lower, at 2 percent and 0.9 percent respectively.

In Ontario, housing was by far the largest category of summary legal advice, at 40 percent of the caseload in 2000. The family benefits category was the second largest portion of the caseload at 11 percent, followed by welfare assistance and other income maintenance, both of which were at 7 percent. The other income maintenance category includes CPP/OAS and EI, which comprised 2 percent and 1 percent of the summary legal advice caseload respectively.

Housing was also the second largest brief service issue in Ontario, at 27 percent of the caseload, exceeded only by General Administrative law (which includes income tax among other things), at 34 percent. Family benefits constituted 9 percent of the brief services caseload in 2000, followed by other income maintenance, at 5 percent, and welfare assistance, at 4 percent. Within other income maintenance, CPP/OAS represented 2 percent of brief services cases, and EI just 0.7 percent.

A limited amount of data was provided by legal aid respondents on the cost of poverty law advice services. In B.C., intake services were reported to cost $785,357 in 2000-2001, 8 percent of the total poverty law budget ($9.4 million). Manitoba reported that the 46 informal poverty law cases cost $2,870, for an average cost of only $62. In Nova Scotia, however, the average cost of the 32 summary service cases in 2000-2001 was $5,853.

The range of costs reported by legal aid plan representatives in different jurisdictions varies quite widely. It is important to be cautious in terms of drawing conclusions from these numbers, as the kinds of cases and services included in cost figures are likely quite different, given differences in the way in which cases are reported and tracked. Further careful investigation on specific cost issues is needed before useful conclusions about the cost of advice services can be drawn, or reliable comparisons among jurisdictions can be made.

Number of Clients Receiving Poverty Law Legal Representation2.*
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 in 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 certificate cases in all poverty law issues.
Quebec2.$ 25,686 Includes EI, QPP, social assistance, rental housing, WCB.
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  

The above chart indicates that the number of clients receiving legal representation in B.C., Ontario and Quebec far exceeds the quantity of services delivered in other jurisdictions. While this may be due in part to the fact that these provinces have much larger populations and, therefore, generate greater demand for services, it is also an indication of the far more limited range of poverty law services offered in other jurisdictions.

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. Coverage may be extended, depending on the nature of the case and the eligibility of the client, but it is on a case-by-case basis. 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 who regularly works in the poverty law area, so the amount of legal representation that can be provided is, accordingly, limited by staff resources and time. As a result, the poverty law lawyer often tries to take on test cases that will yield broader impacts for disadvantaged groups. In Newfoundland, staff lawyers provide legal representation in poverty law matters, but respondents reported that this is not a primary service area for legal aid.

As with advice, legal aid staff are the primary persons involved in the delivery of legal representation in poverty law. 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. In B.C., the majority of poverty law cases are handled by paralegals, particularly in the areas of income assistance, CPP/OAS, and housing. Community Legal Clinics in Ontario rely on staff lawyers and community legal workers to provide legal representation, but data on the number of cases handled by each type of staff was not provided. Little data is available on the legal representation provided by Native Court workers, due to the limited range of data collection categories used at present in the Northwest Territories. Private bar lawyers in this jurisdiction also provide some legal representation in poverty law 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 on a certificate basis.

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.

Number of Poverty Law Cases by Legal Issue3.*
Jurisdiction Income Assistance Landlord/ Tenant, housing Debtor/ Creditor WCB EI C(Q)PP/ OAS
B.C. 1,816 713 440 250 192 224
Alberta       30 1  
Manitoba3.$ 120 9   15    
Ontario 1,563 3,459        
Quebec3.# 13,744 6,284   3,856 953 849
N.W.T.3.% 4 7   1    
TOTAL 17,247 10,472 440 4,152 1,146 1,073

With respect to EI and CPP/OAS - poverty law issues under federal jurisdiction - the number of cases listed in the above chart is probably particularly under-reported, given that several provinces for which separate caseload data is unavailable do provide legal representation in these matters. Under the category of other income maintenance, Ontario covers cases concerning EI and CPP/OAS, as well as WCB and some additional income-related issues. Ontario reported 2,564 other income maintenance cases in the 2000 calendar year. Manitoba's other administrative category includes EI and CPP/OAS, as well as other matters that go before administrative tribunals. There were 77 cases in this area in 2000-2001. Some of Nova Scotia's 15 full service Administrative Tribunal cases may also pertain to EI, although respondents reported that most of the cases in this area concern income assistance and housing.

Despite the under-reporting of federal poverty law issues, the above chart makes it clear that the provincial issues of income assistance and landlord/tenant-housing disputes are the most frequent areas in which legal representation is provided in poverty law. Income assistance is the area in which B.C., Manitoba and Quebec reported the largest number of cases, while Nova Scotia respondents indicated that income assistance and housing are the poverty law issues on which the one poverty law staff lawyer focusses. 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 Native Court workers were involved in some capacity are included). Only in Alberta do income and/or housing matters not top the poverty law legal representation caseload. In this province, the largest number of poverty law cases concern workers' compensation.

Some data on the cost of providing legal representation in poverty law matters is available for B.C., Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia. However, the limited nature of this data in combination with differences in the way in which cost information is tracked preclude useful comparisons among jurisdictions. As such, reported data on the cost of poverty law legal representation must be treated with caution.

B.C. reported that poverty law legal representation constituted 92 percent ($8,550,381) of the entire poverty law budget ($9.4 million). In Manitoba, the cost of the 82 closed staff lawyer cases and the 79 closed private bar lawyer cases in 2000-2001 was $54,163. The cost of the 12 certificate-equivalent poverty law cases was $5,219, for total costs in Manitoba of $59,382. The only cost information available for Ontario was total program expenses for the Community Legal Clinic program in 1999-2000 - $38,259,000, or 17.3 percent of all expenses incurred by Legal Aid Ontario. For Nova Scotia, the 15 full service poverty law cases had an average cost of $17,069.

Public legal education

Only B.C. and Ontario offer extensive public legal education services in the poverty law area, including publications, reference library 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.

Manitoba reported that clients are generally referred to the Community Legal Education Association for legal educational materials. Clients in Nova Scotia are similarly directed to the Legal Information Society of Nova Scotia. Respondents from the Northwest Territories indicated that, while some public legal education is available in the criminal and family law areas, little is available on poverty, due to budget constraints. According to respondents, no public legal education is offered on poverty law in Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, Nova Scotia or Newfoundland.

Strengths and challenges of the poverty law legal aid system

The following discussion summarizes the comments made by legal aid respondents concerning what is working well and what is not working well within the poverty law system in their jurisdiction.

Problem Areas
Thematic Problem Areas Jurisdiction4.*
B.C. Alta. Man. Ont. Que. N.S. N.W.T.
Funding Issues X X X X X X
Coverage Issues X X X X X
Visibility of Legal Aid X X X

4.* Information for this section of the report was not collected for Newfoundland as a result of the inability to make contact with respondents during the second phase of this project.

As the above chart indicates, the key problem areas identified by legal aid respondents concern funding levels and the range of poverty law issues covered by legal aid.

Funding issues

Respondents from six jurisdictions highlighted the limited funding available for poverty law - or for legal aid in general - as a problem area. B.C. representatives pointed to the recently announced cuts as a source of concern in terms of the ability to maintain poverty law services. In Manitoba, a lack of financial resources was identified as the key reason why the Poverty Law
Office model has not been expanded to other regions of the province. Respondents in Ontario reported that increases in poverty law case volume, in the face of frozen funding levels, are creating increased pressure on available services. For many Community Legal Clinics, the result has been a narrowing of the range of issues for which coverage is available. Ontario representatives also pointed to the fact that a lack of funding for administrative tribunals means that these bodies are sitting in fewer locations around the province, making it increasingly difficult for low-income people to access them.

Limited financial resources were identified as a reason for the lack of legal aid coverage in Quebec for poverty law matters prior to formal tribunal or appeal level proceedings. Similarly, Nova Scotia respondents indicated that poverty law services will not be extended until sufficient funding is available to ensure the development of comprehensive services across the entire province. At present, respondents recognize that this kind of financial support seems unlikely. Finally, legal aid representatives in the Northwest Territories insisted that there is too little funding for legal aid overall, and that a repercussion of this is that there is little support for non-core areas, and for poverty law in particular.

Coverage issues

Respondents from five jurisdictions raised concerns about legal aid coverage in the poverty law area. These concerns include both the range of issues for which clients can receive assistance and the geographic distribution of available services.

In Alberta, a respondent pointed to the lack of legal aid coverage available for landlord/tenant matters as a potential problem area (although this representative went on to note that some of the problems people encounter in this area are more social than legal in nature). The coverage issues raised in Ontario concern variations in the range of issues covered by Community Legal Clinics, and resulting inconsistencies in the services available in different parts of the province. Ontario respondents also pointed to the fact that some regions still lack access to CLC offices altogether.

In Quebec, legal aid representatives indicated that there is too little coverage available for the initial stages of a poverty law problem (prior to the tribunal/appeal process). Respondents in Nova Scotia reported that the limited amount of available poverty law service (one staff lawyer) means that there is simply no coverage for many issues. Finally, respondents from the Northwest Territories suggested that there is a general lack of coverage for poverty law matters, due to the fact that already limited resources are almost entirely dedicated to the primary service areas of criminal and family law. However, it was recognized that the large area and small, often isolated population of the N.W.T. complicate the provision of legal aid services.

Visibility of legal aid

Respondents from Alberta and Ontario pointed to the lack of visibility of legal aid as a problem area. In both of these jurisdictions, it was suggested that potential clients' groups need to know more about available legal aid services. In Ontario, this was particularly emphasized with respect to Community Legal Clinics.

Additional problem areas

Respondents in B.C. pointed out that, while private bar lawyers may come to play a larger role in the provision of poverty law legal services as cuts to legal aid are implemented, it is unlikely that their involvement will sufficiently compensate for the reductions in legal aid services. Private bar lawyers not only lack expertise in poverty law matters, but tend to have little interest in this area of law.

Strengths and challenges of the poverty law legal aid system

Success stories
Thematic Success Stories Jurisdiction5.*
B.C. Alta. Man. Ont. Que. N.S. N.W.T.
Service Delivery Models X X X X X
Community-Based Approach X X
Comprehensiveness of Coverage X X

5.* Information for this section of the report was not collected for Newfoundland as a result of the inability to make contact with respondents during the second phase of this project.

Service delivery models

Respondents from five jurisdictions pointed to varying aspects of the way in which they deliver poverty law services as examples of aspects of their poverty law systems that are working well. In B.C., the expertise of paralegals involved in providing both advice and legal representation in poverty law matters was identified as a very valuable resource - albeit one that respondents expect may be lost with the restructuring of legal aid. Similarly, respondents in Manitoba pointed to the Winnipeg Poverty Law Office as a success story with respect to the provision of legal aid. Not only do the staff at this office have particular expertise in poverty law, but it has also helped to streamline the application process, with the result that more people are able to get some kind of assistance. In Ontario, efforts to increase the awareness of legal aid's Area offices about the activities of Community Legal Clinics have resulted in a more effective system of collaboration and cross-referral. Finally, the Northwest Territories reports that the private bar lawyers who cover poverty law cases offer high quality services, and are, accordingly, a valuable resource for legal aid.

Although it does not pertain specifically to the way in which legal aid services are delivered, a respondent in Alberta suggested that the Boyle Street Co-op model exemplifies the approach that should be taken in poverty law. The Co-op provides a wide range of services in an integrated manner, providing support and resources to address both the social and legal aspects of poverty law matters.

Community-based approach

Respondents from B.C. and Ontario emphasized the community orientation of their networks of local offices as a positive feature of the poverty law system in these jurisdictions. Representatives in B.C. noted that Community Law and Native Community Law offices are not only an effective mechanism for delivering legal services, but are also an important resource for community development. In Ontario, the range of services offered by Community Legal Clinics (particularly non-tariff activities like advice), and their ability to respond to local needs and conditions, were highlighted as key positive features. As such, the expansion of the Community Legal Clinic network was also identified as a positive initiative.

Comprehensiveness of coverage

Despite the fact that poverty law is not established as a separate coverage category, a respondent in Alberta suggested that the coverage available for poverty law matters is relatively comprehensive. Provided that a client is financially eligible and the case is considered to have merit as established through a legal opinion, legal aid assistance can theoretically be extended for a very wide range of matters. Similarly, Quebec respondents indicated that the coverage available for poverty law there is very comprehensive, in terms of both range of issues and the geographic distribution of services.

Additional success stories

Three additional issues were highlighted as areas in which the poverty law system is working well. Ontario legal aid respondents pointed to the stability of Community Legal Clinic funding as a positive feature, particularly in light of the fact that CLCs are still able to maintain some independence in terms of making decisions about local priorities and services. In Nova Scotia, the work of the poverty law staff lawyer on test cases that have the potential to yield broader impacts for disadvantaged groups was considered valuable (although respondents added that additional poverty law services are clearly needed in this province). Co-operation with community organizations and the development of positive working relationships (including collaboration and cross-referrals) were highlighted in the Northwest Territories as a positive feature of the poverty law system. Respondents noted that this is particularly the case in the family law area - an area that respondents considered to overlap poverty law.

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