Hundreds of people use West Toronto Community Legal Services every year. But if its primary funder, Legal Aid Ontario, gets its way, the centre will be closed down and services moved across the city.
Elisabeth Bruckmann tries hard to put up walls.
But when the acting executive director of West Toronto Community Legal Services describes the horrific tale of an 80-year-old man who came into the Dundas St. W. office last year, the walls tumble down.
She worries that if the centre is shut down due to a pending end of funding from Legal Aid Ontario, people on society’s fringe will be cut off from a crucial support system.
“It just breaks my heart if we can’t help him anymore.”
The man was living in a rooming house with no heat or electricity for months, an unusable kitchen and a ceiling so water-damaged it fell down, ruining his clothing. The former business owner went to see Bruckmann when his landlord tried to evict him after he requested repairs.
Bruckmann fought to get rent reductions for the months the man lived in the home, and to get repairs made. Her staff even helped him file for Old Age Security, something he hadn’t ever done when he became eligible.
“He never would have got it done by himself,” she said. “He said he didn’t know what he would do if he couldn’t come here.”
Staff at the legal services centre, which opened in 1985, see some 800 to 1,000 clients a year, people who regularly deal with comparable issues. But if its primary funder, Legal Aid Ontario, gets its way, the centre will be closed down and legal services moved across the city.
The centre’s board of directors thinks the proposed change will be a disservice to the community, as well as putting a dozen employees out of work — including a community mental health worker funded by the City of Toronto.
“We provide services to some of the most vulnerable,” said board chair and long-time legal aid lawyer Kier Munn. “We don’t have faith the proposal will service this neighbourhood effectively.”
An official with Legal Aid Ontario said it is reviewing the funding to the centre and at this time cannot comment on the process.
“There has been no final decision on the reconsideration,” said spokesperson Kristian Justesen of the centre’s appeal.
“Defunding West Toronto Community Legal Services will result in a significant loss of services for low-income individuals in the West Toronto community,” his website states.
The legal services centre, which has a dedicated lawyer for Ontario Disabilities Support Program issues and lawyers to offer support for people with social assistance, housing and landlord issues, among other things, has appealed to Legal Aid Ontario to keep its doors open.
But with the fiscal year ending March 31, the clock is ticking and the centre’s fate will be known after an oral hearing prior to the year-end.
Funding, which comes from the Attorney General’s office and is distributed by legal aid, is on a month-to-month basis until the hearing.
By moving the services to a regional office in the downtown area, client relationships will suffer, said Munn. Being in the community allows the centre to build close relationships with its clients; something he said won’t happen at a regional centre.
“Those individuals won’t have that personalized service by a single lawyer,” he said.
The move to a regional centre would be temporary, according to his understanding of the decision. However, there is no indication what would happen in the future.
“Our clients could be displaced not once, but twice,” Munn said.