by Peter Showler, Director, the Refugee Forum
A report on legal aid for refugees (PDF), just released by the Refugee Forum, highlights the challenges facing refugee claimants under Canada’s new refugee regime introduced by Bill C-31. The bill was passed last June and is due to be implemented by the end of the year or early January.
The Refugee Forum report charts the limited legal aid support now available to refugee claimants and underlines the tremendous challenges facing legal aid administrations under the new refugee claim system when the process will be much faster and the need for legal representation greater. Legal aid is provided by the provinces with some federal contribution to legal aid funds.
Here are some of the salient points in the report:
- Only five of the ten provinces now provide legal aid to refugee claimants
- Ontario has the greatest proportion of claims (62%), followed by Quebec and B.C.
- All five legal aid regimes provide limited legal aid funding, screening legal aid applicants for financial eligibility and potential merit of their claim
- There are no obvious ways to do merit screening for claimants under the new system when written claims must be submitted within 15 days.
The report’s section on Ontario provides the best example of the challenges facing refugee claimants. Ontario receives the most claimants (15,120 claims in 2010) and has the most developed legal aid program. Most legal aid service is provided by private lawyers on legal aid certificates working at set tariffs although legal service is also provided by the Refugee Law Office and some community legal clinics.
The report identifies six basic stages in the claim process where refugees will require legal support, which is two more than the current system. It is clear that with smaller budgets, legal aid services will contract while claimant need for service will increase. It is equally clear that Legal Aid Ontario cannot approve certificates quickly enough to realistically meet the rapid timelines to draft the written claim, complete the appeal or prevent the removal of those claimants on a fast track list.
The report also notes that claimants are even more dependent on legal aid support. With the speed of the new system, both the refugee claim and the appeal will be decided before most claimants will be allowed to work to pay for a lawyer.
Ontario has begun to revise its legal aid policies to meet the challenge but its first proposals, introduced on September 6, have not been well received by the refugee bar. Since the deadlines are so short, lawyers are being asked to initiate legal representation without assurance that the claimant will fully qualify for legal aid. Lawyers have objected that they are not only being asked to give their own time for uncertain compensation but must also pay interpretation expenses that may not be reimbursed.
The dilemma for lawyers and legal aid administrations exposes the real costs when a refugee system tries to go too fast. Most experts predict that there will many more unrepresented refugee claimants in the new system and the result will be more judicial errors, more miscarriages of justice, and more legitimate refugees sent home to the risk of persecution.
Download Legal Aid for Refugee Claimants in Canada(PDF) on the Refugee Forum website .
- Toronto Star: Ontario lawyers stop taking refugee clients on legal aid
- Bill C-31 – Fast but not as fair: Major changes to Canada’s refugee system
- Remembering Rabbi Gunther Plaut
- Press Release: New Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers launched, vow to defend rights of asylum seekers
- Maytree Opinion – Ratna Omidvar: Recent Immigration Changes Deserve Debate