Legal Aid Ontario Family Law Offices
Direct service delivery of family legal aid representation in Ontario.
Legal Aid Ontario
|May 1999||Pilot project initiated|
...OLAP (as it was then known) was instructed by the Legal Aid Committee of the Law Society (its governing body up until April 1, 1999) to prepare a proposal for a series of pilot projects to test alternative service delivery models. The aim of these pilot projects was to determine whether:
- The Plan can improve access to services.
- Services can be provided more cost-efficiently.
- The quality of services provided can be improved through the exercise of more control over who provides these services and the qualifications they have, and through more intense monitoring of the services clients receive.
In February 1998, the Law Society gave approval for Plan management to proceed with an extensive list of pilot projects in the family, immigration, and other civil and young offender service areas.
Prominent among the list of alternative service delivery approaches approved for pilot testing in the family law area were three family law staff offices located in Toronto, Ottawa, and Thunder Bay. These pilot staff family law offices opened in May and June of 1999 and were to run for three years, at a minimum.
Historically, the Ontario Legal Aid Plan (OLAP) relied almost exclusively on the private Bar to provide services to eligible applicants for criminal and family legal aid. Direct service delivery by OLAP staff was limited largely to duty counsel services and to other poverty law services provided through the Plan's clinic system.
This reliance on the judicare model to provide the bulk of its services in the criminal and family law areas came under extreme pressure in the mid-1990s as the Plan was forced to work within a fixed budget, and the demand for legal aid services rose.
The Family Law Offices employ from 2 to 5 full-time equivalent lawyers, as well as paralegals and administrative staff. Clients must first obtain a legal aid certificate, which they may take either to a private lawyer or to one of the Family Law Offices in Toronto, Ottawa, and Thunder Bay.
A formal review of the pilot project was conducted in 2002.
- Reviews by a family law expert of the complexity of samples of cases completed by the FLOs and by the private Bar on certificate in Toronto, Ottawa, and Thunder Bay.
- A telephone survey of clients of the FLOs and of the private Bar on certificates. The main aim of this survey was to measure client satisfaction as an indicator of service quality.
- A mail survey of the family Bar in Toronto Ottawa, and Thunder Bay. The main goal of this survey was to examine the family bar's perspectives on the quality of the work of the FLOs and of the impact of the FLOs on their communities.
- Cost data for services provided by the FLOs and for family certificate work completed by the private Bar in the three cities.
- Interviews with key informants in each location which focussed on perceptions of the role played by the FLOs in local service delivery, the relationship of the FLOs to the private Bar and progress made by the FLOs in achieving their objectives.
The review of case complexity established the relatively greater complexity of the Toronto FLO caseload compared to the Toronto private bar certificate caseload, and the essentially equal complexity of the Ottawa and Thunder Bay FLO and private bar caseloads.
The survey of clients supports the general conclusion that, from the clients' perspective, the quality of services provided by the pilot FLOs was at least as high as that provided by the private bar on certificate.
The data from the Bar survey present a generally positive or at worst, neutral perception of the FLOs among private family lawyers in the three locations who have dealt with FLO staff lawyers as opposing counsel. The FLOs are generally seen as improving access to family law services, especially in Thunder Bay. Among lawyers familiar with FLO staff as opposing counsel, most reported perceiving no difference in service quality or competence of counsel.
Service cost contrasts across the three offices were stark. They ranged from well above private Bar certificate costs to somewhat below these costs. Completing family law cases at lower average cost than the current tariff dictates represents a significant achievement, given the current discontent with the tariff. In order for the FLOs to be consistently cost-competitive with the private bar on certificates, high levels of staff utilization and restricting the range of services provided to those typical of the private bar on certificate will be required.