Legal Aid Ontario is a publicly funded and publicly accountable non-profit corporation, responsible for administering the legal aid program in the province of Ontario, Canada.
Legal Aid Ontario lawyers work in courthouses and legal aid offices across Ontario, providing legal advocacy and advice to low-income Ontarians. Legal Aid lawyers have expertise in criminal, family, immigration/refugee and poverty law.
Lawyers working for Legal Aid Ontario handle high volumes of cases. We are expected to provide fast and reliable legal advice on the spot. We help people navigate the court process, handle sensitive family negotiations, and deal with challenging immigration, refugee, and poverty law cases.
It’s a big responsibility to work for people and communities who have no one else to turn to. Often in crisis situations, clients rely on Legal Aid lawyers to ensure justice is served.
Criminal Duty Counsel
Criminal duty counsel lawyers employed by Legal Aid Ontario are expected to assist many clients each day, providing fast and reliable legal advice and helping people navigate the court process. Clients are often in crisis, representing some of the most marginalized people in Canadian society.
Legal Aid criminal duty counsel lawyers operate out of courthouses across the province, assisting people without private counsel who are in custody, providing legal advice and representation in court.
Duty counsel are assigned to a number of different courts, including the remand court, bail court and plea court, which take place each day, as well as the weekly youth and federal remand courts. Criminal duty counsel also provide representation for clients in specialized courts, including drug treatment court, Gladue courts and both the adult and youth mental health courts. We also provide input to various committees on court policies.
In addition to providing on the spot legal advice and representation, criminal duty counsel carry a number of client files and attend meetings with the Crown, negotiate pleas and releases from custody, and run bail hearings for those clients that are being held in custody. Duty counsel also prepare guilty pleas and make submissions regarding sentences. If a Legal Aid client requires a trial for their charges, they may be able to access the services of a criminal lawyer from the private bar.
Family Duty Counsel
From child custody hearings to orders of disclosure of financial documents, family law duty counsel are working in communities across Ontario to ensure justice and fairness in family related legal situations. Low or no income families often face barriers when interacting with the justice system. With the number of self-represented litigants in family courts increasing every year, Legal Aid Ontario lawyers represent those who would otherwise be without legal advice or representation in court.
Family duty counsel lawyers provide both advice and representation in court to unrepresented family law litigants. Clients can access family duty counsel to receive assistance with claims for custody, access, child support and divorces. Family law is a very paper-work and process-oriented operation. Everyone who attends at a family law information centre can receive procedural advice. Others will qualify for, and receive more in-depth legal advice about their family law matters.
Family duty counsel also assist with Children’s Aid Society matters. These are very sensitive cases involving the seizure or removal of client’s children by the local Children’s Aid Society.
Immigration/Refugee Law Office
The Refugee Law Office is a litigation staff office specializing in immigration and refugee law. The RLO represents clients at all levels of the Immigration and Refugee Board, as well as the Federal Court, The Federal Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court of Canada.
As a staff office, the RLO represents clients from all over the world in their refugee claims and other forms of risk assessments. Legal Aid lawyers at the RLO have a special mandate to assist those losing status in Canada as a result of criminality that is linked to addiction or mental health issues. The RLO has the resources and the specialization to take on complex cases for clients without legal capacity, unaccompanied minors, and also to bring challenges to the legislation and status quo.
Finally, Legal Aid lawyers from the RLO act as duty counsel to immigration detainees held in centres across Ontario. Detainees are an underserved portion of the immigrant population with very limited access to counsel. The RLO assists these individuals in various ways including, summary legal advice, representation in their detention review hearings, in connecting them with services, and in representation of their cases.
Legal Aid lawyers who work at the provincial head office in downtown Toronto carry out different functions depending upon their department. Departments include LAO LAW, the Clinic Resource Office (CRO), Policy, and Big Case Management (BCM). Lawyers working at LAO LAW provide research support to members of the criminal, family and immigration law private bars who are representing legally aided clients. CRO lawyers provide research and litigation support in poverty law areas for Ontario’s community legal clinics. Big Case Management lawyers set budgets for the defence of Legal Aid clients facing trials and appeals that are especially costly and complex. Policy lawyers work on various initiatives of the organization including, for example, Legal Aid’s goal of improving services to clients experiencing mental illness.
The work of the lawyers in all of the foregoing departments has been simplified and distilled for the sake of brevity. Generally, lawyers at the provincial head office carry out diverse functions, some of which provide support for the private bar, oversee the management of legal aid cases, and assist in guiding the policy decisions of the organization.