Federal government to fund Ontario free legal organization for another year

The exterior of Osgoode Hall in Toronto. The buildings house the Court of Appeal for Ontario and the Law Society of Ontario. Nick Westoll / File / Global News

TORONTO – A legal organization that helps people who can’t afford lawyers through civil litigation has won a shut-down reprieve after the federal government stepped up with funding to complement donations.

In a statement, Pro Bono Ontario said it would now be able to keep its centres, which were slated to close Dec. 14, open throughout 2019.

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“(The organization) remains committed, however, to working with stakeholders to ensure a long-term solution is found to allow it to continue to provide free legal services and access to justice to low-income Ontarians,” Pro Bono said in a statement.

Earlier this month, the organization cited a lack of stable funding for a decision to shut down the centres after years of “absorbing the burden of unrepresented litigants” in the civil courts.

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According to the organization, the Department of Justice agreed to kick in $250,000, while another $275,000 has been donated by law firms, individual lawyers, and law associations.

Pro Bono Ontario operates two court-based centres in Toronto and a third in Ottawa. They provide free legal services to low-income Ontarians with civil and small claims matters.

Since 2010, when Legal Aid Ontario cut its civil-certificate program, the centres have been the only organized response to those in civil litigation unable to access lawyers, Pro Bono said. The centres have provided in-person and telephone consultations to a growing number of people who are referred by legal aid offices and courts throughout the province.

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In 2017, for example, the centres served more than 18,500 clients – a 10-fold increase in 10 years, Pro Bono said.

Pro Bono’s volunteer lawyers donate millions of dollars in free legal services. The 17-year-old registered charity said the centres save the province $5 million a year by reducing delays in the court system.

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Pro Bono said it has struggled for years to secure the resources needed to meet the growing demand for services.

“Since announcing the closures, we have heard from our clients who were distraught about the prospect of facing the justice system alone,” said Pro Bono executive director Lynn Burns.

“The response we’ve seen from lawyers demonstrates decisively that the legal profession cares and is committed to access to justice.”

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