A free hotline that provides civil legal advice to Ontarians who can’t afford a lawyer saw a 72 per cent increase in calls this year as the COVID-19 pandemic created an explosion of legal issues in the province.
Phone lines dedicated to employment and housing needs saw the biggest surges in demand, according to Pro Bono Ontario (PBO), the charity behind the free legal service. Employment-related calls were up 153 per cent this year compared to 2019, and housing calls were up 145 per cent.
“Those lines have just exploded,” said Yonit Fuhrmann, deputy director of PBO. “We’re answering questions that didn’t even exist a few months prior to the pandemic.”
Fuhrmann told CBC News the numbers show how COVID-19 has accelerated the pace and scale of an existing crisis around access to justice crisis in Ontario.
“There is nowhere else to turn for a lot of our clients,” she said. “The reality is that most Ontarians have nowhere to turn for their everyday civil legal problems.”
More calls about terminations, evictions
The nature of employment and housing calls to the hotline has evolved over the course of the pandemic. Early on, employment calls to PBO were largely related to layoffs, qualifications for government benefits and workplace health and safety concerns — but since July there have been fewer of those calls and more calls about terminations.
In terms of housing, almost all of the calls have been about evictions since the Landlord Tenant Board (LTB) started issuing eviction orders again in August.
“We’re seeing a surge of evictions that’s really become a tidal wave since the LTB resumed,” Fuhrmann told CBC News. “It’s become overwhelming.”
The hotline has taken between 300 and 400 calls per month about evictions since August.
Before the pandemic, the hotline answered from 60 to 70 calls a day overall. Now Fuhrmann says that number often balloons to 150 calls.
Besides employment and housing problems, the free legal service has also seen an 102 per cent increase in calls about wills and estates, and a more than 25 per cent increase in calls about consumer issues like cancelled travel plans and weddings.
Brampton man gets help with $5,000 refund
Farid Ghafour made one of those consumer calls.
The Brampton man found PBO online after waiting three months for a refund on $5,000 worth of cancelled airline tickets. The May flights were for his wife and two children to visit family in Afghanistan — before it became clear that wouldn’t be possible because of COVID-19.
“It was a whole mess,” said Ghafour. “[The travel agency] kept on delaying it. And I was like ‘What is an alternate way?'”
n July, Ghafour called and talked to one of PBO’s volunteer lawyers about his situation. He says the lawyer told him that since the travel agency had an office in Markham, he could take the company to small claims court — or could at least threaten that action.
“I was told if I call [the agency] and tell them I’m going to build a case against them in court they may process my application a little bit faster — so that’s what I did,” said Ghafour.
Within a month of calling the hotline Ghafour got his refund.
“They kind of showed me this is how it could be done,” he said. “That is the beauty of having a system where you can deal with professionals.”
Hotline ‘enormous advantage’ to justice system
Adrian Ishak is one of those professionals. The employment lawyer has been volunteering with Pro Bono Ontario for three and a half years.
“It is so essential to have some legal advice at the outset of your case to understand what your options are, to make the right decisions for you,” said Ishak. “So many people would not have that, but for Pro Bono Ontario.”
Ishak told CBC News that legal help can range from a one-off phone call about whether or not something is worth pursuing to several phone calls that coach clients through preparing court documents or writing responses to their company’s lawyer about severance packages.
And he says these calls don’t just help individual clients.
“[The hotline] is an enormous advantage to our justice system,” said Ishak. “Self-represented litigants are amongst the single largest reasons for backlogs in our system, because they don’t know the rules.”
Free legal service almost shutdown two years ago
PBO’s free legal services save the Ontario government more than $5 million a year by reducing the number of court proceedings, increasing court efficiency and providing pro-bono lawyer time from the private sector, according to a study by the charity from 2017.
Despite those savings, PBO, which in non-COVID times also operates free in-person legal clinics, almost closed two years ago from a lack of funding.
Since then, Fuhrmann says PBO has secured annual funding from the Law Foundation of Ontario and regular donations from large law firms.
The beauty of the hotline — according to Fuhrmann — is that most of the time a little help goes a long way.
“You don’t need to have a lawyer run with you to court,” she said. “You can actually just have [the lawyer] let you know what your options are, and put you on the right path with a little bit of ghostwriting.”