Legal Aid Cracks Down On Refugee Lawyers. But At What Cost?

By Andy Semotiuk | April 28, 2015

Legal Aid Cracks Down on Refugee Lawyers

Andy New

Legal Aid Ontario is tightening its rules for lawyers who take on refugee cases following a scathing report that showed thousands of Hungarian Roma were left high and dry by lawyers who made hundreds of thousands of dollars from them.

Andrew Brouwer, senior legal counsel with Immigration and Refugee Law at Legal Aid Ontario, said starting this summer, lawyers who want to handle legal aid refugee cases will have to apply to be authorized to handle those kinds of cases, pass a competency test and meet certain standards and best practices.

Brouwer said those practices include meeting clients upon being retained, spending sufficient time preparing them for their hearings and making sure they have the opportunity to tell their whole story.

It also means using translators, properly translating documents and filing evidence to the Immigration and Refugee Board tribunal on time….

“We are going to be vetting every single refugee lawyer in Ontario to ensure they meet the standards and if they don’t, they may not be permitted to continue or they will be put on some sort of conditions until they can demonstrate they meet the standards,” he said.

Far be it for me to deny anyone their day in court and the opportunity to prove their credentials to stay in Canada. For this reason, I agree that Canadian lawyers could have done a better job of representing their Roma clients in these refugee and deportation proceedings. This and other articles I have read on the subject show that.
However, I am not convinced that in most instances it was the neglect or incompetence of counsel that led to the poor treatment of these refugee claimants. Any competent immigration lawyer who has looked at the fee schedule and amounts paid by Ontario Legal Aid to conduct a refugee hearing will tell you that the compensation offered for handling such a case is meagre at best, yet lawyers still give it their best shot under the circumstances.
New one
(Pic: Free Images).
Harsh as it sounds, most refugees are getting what Canada pays for, and sometimes more. Indeed, many lawyers that I know who handle refugee cases invest more time and effort into them than what is reasonably required. Effectively, they are working for free or at least for very low wages for the sake of their clients.

I gave up legal aid long ago because I simply could not afford to provide my legal services at the prices paid. I know there are many others like me. Like it or not, law is a competitive business. Would a good lawyer like to help every deserving refugee claimant? Yes. Would that good lawyer like to help their kids get through university? Also yes. And something has to give.Fact is, the effort vs. compensation ratio for refugee cases is bad compared to practicing other types of law. Few lawyers are willing to drop their responsibilities to other clients, their firms, themselves and their families for the sake of helping refugees in circumstances where the rewards are small. It will remain this way until someone – and unfortunately, the refugee almost always can’t afford it – raises the compensation for such work.

Finally, while it may sound like a positive step that “lawyers who want to handle legal aid refugee cases will have to apply to be authorized to handle those kinds of cases, pass a competency test and meet certain standards and best practices,” Legal Aid must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Many hardworking lawyers are already helping refugees even though the rewards are small. If those lawyers now have to jump over too many hurdles to practice refugee law in the first place, you might turn them off completely.


Andy Semotiuk is a Canadian and US immigration lawyer with immigration law firmPace Immigration. You can learn more about Andy at My Work Visa.