Pro Bono Law Ontario’s technology-enabled self-help center at Toronto’s Superior Court has received awards and accolades. But the truest measure of its value may be the fact that people are willing to drive eight hours across Ontario to take advantage of the free legal services offered there.
“It’s a classic example of, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” said Lynn Burns, Executive Director of PBLO.
The center, along with another at Toronto’s Small Claims Court (both called Law Help Ontario), had 7,645 visits in 2009, 74% more than in 2008. Law Help Ontario was recently named the winner of the 2010 LTN Award for Most Innovative Use of Technology in a Pro Bono Project. Last year, it won the American College of Trial Lawyers’ Emil Gumpert Award. A new Law Help Ontario center will open this spring in Ottawa, Ontario’s 2nd-largest city.
|Yonit Fuhrmann and Lynn Burns|
PBLO was the first organization to provide self-help resources for unrepresented litigants in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province. “We really try to provide a continuum of services, with a combination of staff, procedural information, online resources and volunteer lawyers,” Lynn explained.
Hundreds of attorneys from more than 50 law firms volunteer at the center, which has integrated LawHelp Interactive, Pro Bono Net’s online document assembly project, into the way it provides services. (See related article.) After being assessed by intake staff, clients meet with pro bono attorneys, who advise them on filling out needed forms. The client then uses LawHelp Interactive, on a terminal at the center, to fill out the form and brings it back to the pro bono attorney for review. A subset of automated forms is also available to the public on LawHelpOntario.org, the first LawHelp.org site to be developed outside the U.S.
The center’s use of LawHelp Interactive improves outcomes for the client while minimizing the amount of time pro bono attorneys spend on administrative work. Streamlining the process enables more people to receive help and provides a more satisfying pro bono experience for the attorneys.
PBLO’s achievements in increasing access to justice are all the more impressive since, unlike the U.S., Canada historically did not have an institutionalized pro bono culture. When PBLO was created in 2002, no law firm had a formal pro bono policy. Pro bono work was done purely on an ad hoc basis, if at all.
Lynn and her staff of six have achieved remarkable results since then. “There has been a total sea change” in law firm attitudes towards pro bono, said Yonit Fuhrmann, PBLO’s Deputy Director. “Most of the large firms now have a pro bono policy that counts pro bono time as billable time. It made things much easier for PBLO in terms of being to recruit volunteers for our self-help centers, which rely on two lawyers per day, five days a week.”
The self-help centers have helped encourage pro bono by making it easy for both firms and attorneys to get involved. “We could go to the firms and say, we need you to send 24 associates, and we’ll schedule them,” Lynn explained. “Once their lawyers started providing pro bono services at the centers they were getting experience that 1st, 2nd or 3rd year associates would probably not get for several years. The firms saw it as a win-win. The associates loved it, they’re getting experience and they’re serving the public good.”
Small and solo practioners are increasingly getting involved as well, Yonit said. “We really focus on ease and efficiency. Lawyers can come in and know they’ve got a limited commitment set up in advance, and they’re not leaving with a giant case file,” she explained.
PBLO has two other main programs, a child advocacy project and a project that provides business law services to charitable organizations. They also help law firms develop pro bono policies and find signature projects, since firms don’t have staff dedicated to pro bono. In addition, PBLO partners with pro bono organizations from other Canadian provinces to host a national pro bono conference every two years; the next one will be this year. A second province, Alberta, has also joined the Pro Bono Net network with its site, Pro Bono Law Alberta.
The newfound commitment to pro bono has allowed Ontario’s lawyers to respond in an organized way to the effects of the economic downturn, which, as in the U.S., has left vulnerable people struggling with job loss, mounting debt and other problems.
“In the nine years I’ve been here we’ve been all about organizing the opportunities for the firms,” Lynn said. “2009 was the first year that the demand [for services] is starting to exceed the supply.”