Legal Aid Ontario Working to Close the Gap for Clients with Mental Illnesses

Breakfast at PARC begins months-long consultations by LAO across province
PARC and Legal Aid

Robert Cromwell an artist and member at Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre (PARC) gives Nye Thomas, Director General of Policy and Strategic Research at Legal Aid Ontario one of his paintings. LAO was at PARC to consult with members about their struggles with the legal system in Ontario. (Dec. 11, 2013)

When he looks around the room at a large group of people gathered for breakfast at the Parkdale Activitiy-Recreation Centre (PARC), Victor Willis said, among the members, there would be nearly 50 stories of a minor legal issue escalating to the point that lives are left in shambles.

“What we see and hear all the time is that a simple interaction will escalate,” explained Willis, the executive director at PARC.

It could begin with an argument with a landlord or fellow tenant and the police are called. When the police intervene criminal charges may be laid. The person might not fully understand what that means and they don’t show up in court. They are charged with failure to appear and a bench warrant is issued. They won’t get bail and may be locked up for months and months, Willis explained. They lose their housing because they haven’t been able to pay their rent. If you don’t have an address then Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) is reduced.

A simple situation for someone living with mental health or addictions issues can very quickly go from minor to devastating.

“Without the ability to identify that a person might need some accommodation and some extra assistance, their cascade through the system costs us all a huge amount, as well as for the individual when things fall apart,” Willis said. “The system isn’t accommodating and as people get entangled in it they can’t get out.”

Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) has recognized and is working to close this gap.

Legal Aid Ontario provides lawyers for people who cannot afford lawyers. Over the past eight months LAO has been collaborating with experts in both the mental health and justice systems in the development of its new multi-year strategy to improve and expand legal aid services for clients with mental illnesses.

On Dec. 4 LAO released a paper setting out a set of first principles and key issues LAO believes are important to developing its Mental Health Strategy, which aims to improve access for a client group that is disproportionately criminalized, incarcerated, impoverished and under-housed.

Part of the solution, according to John McCamus, Chair of the Board at LAO, is coming around to communities like PARC, meeting the members and hearing their stories about challenges they have faced in the legal system. So, on Dec. 11 representatives from Legal Aid Ontario joined members of PARC for their morning coffee to speak to members about their experiences.

“We figured out at Legal Aid Ontario that we are not doing as good a job as we would potentially like to be able to do for your community,” McCamus said. “I think there are a lot of people caught up in the legal system who are not being as well served as they could be and we want to learn more about that and get better.”

The visit to PARC marks the beginning of two-to-three months of consultations LAO will be conducting in communities across Ontario in order to speak directly with people who live with mental health and addictions issues and have had struggles with LAO, housing, landlord-tentant disputes, ODSP or Children’s Aid.

Part of these consultations will be getting recommendations for a more accommodating system, explained Ryan Fritsch, policy counsel leading development of the strategy.

“What we want to do is improve the services LAO offers to make sure you are empowered to make the choices in your life that are best for you,” said Fritsch.

LAO, Fritsch said, is looking at how they can make access easier, make communicating easier and looking at intersecting legal needs – taking a holistic look at all of the factors like housing, health and social support.

The dates of future consultations have not yet been set, but people who are interested in participating can visit for updates.

Reproduced from