While the Ford government is busy destroying the independence and impartiality of our administrative justice tribunals, it is also wreaking havoc with the legal aid services on which much of the advocacy before those tribunals depend.
Now comes news that the cuts to Legal Aid are to result in the closing of Parkdale Community Legal Services, Ontario’s flag-ship community legal services clinic and Osgoode Hall’s vaunted clinical education program. The story is told in the following passages in a letter to Osgoode’s Dean which is circulating to Osgoode alumnae in an effort to persuade the Law School to supply the funding that LAO can no longer provide.
Parkdale Community Legal Services (PCLS) was founded in 1971 by Osgoode students and faculty as the first legal clinic of its kind in North America. In the near half-century since the clinic’s inception, the student program at PCLS has trained hundreds of law students, many of whom are now shaping the law as lawyers, academics, activists, politicians, judges, and engaged members of their communities. The clinic has also become a cornerstone of the Parkdale community and Osgoode’s experiential learning program. PCLS advocates for migrants and refugees seeking status in Canada, workers seeking justice against abusive employers, tenants fighting displacement from their homes, and community members seeking access to healthcare and income security.
As recognized in the 2017 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Osgoode and PCLS, Osgoode has made a “multigenerational commitment to the Parkdale community”. PCLS is a driver of clinical legal education and law reform. It also acts as a nexus of support to community members challenging violence, precarity, and instability in their lives. Osgoode is a critical partner in ensuring that PCLS is able to continue to meet the needs of the Parkdale community.
As you know, the PCLS lease at 1266 Queen Street West ends on July 31, 2019 and PCLS has been preparing to enter a new office space in Parkdale. On April 30, 2019, Legal Aid Ontario (LAO), the clinic’s primary funder, reneged on its earlier commitment and informed PCLS that it would no longer fund a new long-term lease in the community. As it stands, LAO is unwilling to commit more than one year of lease funding and has withdrawn financial support for necessary renovations of the new clinic space.
The alternative proposal from LAO is for PCLS to leave Parkdale indefinitely. This would see the clinic move into a much smaller space in the downtown core, forcing PCLS to downsize its number of staff and students. For many of the clinic’s clients who already face barriers to accessing justice, such a move will make it nearly impossible to access legal services. They will also lose the skilled community workers who advocate alongside them to fight disempowerment, poverty, and displacement. Osgoode students, many of whom are drawn to the law school because of the Poverty Law Intensive Program, will lose an important experiential learning opportunity. PCLS now has a strong network of over 1700 Osgoode alumni who bring their valuable experiences at the clinic with them to their areas of practice.
The current situation constitutes an imminent and existential threat to PCLS as a neighbourhood institution. According to the MOU, Osgoode affirms its obligation to “promote the development and reform of law as it affects the poor and disadvantaged”. Moreover, Osgoode’s 2017-2020 Strategic Plan states that the school’s overarching goals include “service to Canadian society in a manner that furthers social justice.” At this pivotal moment, Osgoode must substantiate its commitment to PCLS, its student program, and the neighbourhood that it serves.
On behalf of current, former, and prospective Osgoode students, we call on the Osgoode Administration to honour our relationship with PCLS by:
1. Advocating on behalf of PCLS to LAO to ensure that PCLS stays in Parkdale and continues to offer its full range of services, including the student program and community legal work; and
2. If LAO is unable to fully fund PCLS in its current form and planned new location, Osgoode must step up and fund PCLS at a level commensurate with Osgoode’s commitment to fighting poverty law issues.
The letter has already attracted nearly 200 signatures. For readers with a special connection to the Parkdale clinic, access to the letter may be had at https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSeDIA4iAHptiV47XibTXr9PpLF9ydmRbLsuHRQ07AkHaKD9YQ/viewform
As some visitors to this site may know, this author was the first Chair of the Parkdale Board of Governors and a Director/Co-director of the clinic for about five years in the late ’70s, and holds that clinic in the highest regard for its work with the disadvantaged in the Parkdale Community and for the contribution it has made to the education of law students in the legal services needs of disadvantage communities everywhere.
This is devastating news and it should be a call to arms for all members of Ontario’s legal profession.