Thanks to a combination of the their recent levy increase and a $100,000 budget increase from Legal Aid Ontario, Toronto’s Downtown Legal Services (DLS) has been given an opportunity to expand its offerings and to deliver more hands-on training to the nearly 140 University of Toronto Law students who work at the clinic every year.

“The levy increase and legal aid increase were serendipitous, both were necessary to support those initiatives. We are very grateful for how these events turned out,” said Lisa Cirillo, executive director of DLS.

DLS offers free and low-cost services to low-income people who meet Legal Aid Ontario’s financial eligibility criteria and to U of T students. In doing so, they aim to bridge the gap between people whose rights are threatened and the costly legal aid that they need. They can offer help regarding criminal law, family law, refugee and immigration law, and university affairs.

Their decision to add employment law to the roster of services stems from an increase in precarious employment and unemployment in the city. Various assessments among legal aid clinics shed light on services gaps throughout the province and on a pattern of denial for Ontario Disability Support Program applications.

“We did offer employment services years ago but due to resource allocations it could not be sustained. This has been a long standing issue, especially among low income callers that did not have access to better referrals, they often have to forgo their rights and they find themselves in a very vulnerable position.”

Housing services will be enlarged to counteract other legal aid clinics’ limited treatment of housing issues. While most clinics prioritize evictions, DLS will be able to help clients with a host of housing matters such as roommate issues and sub-par housing conditions.

“Up until this influx of funding, there was a part-time lawyer in our housing division and limited staff lawyer time for students and clients. With this expansion we are able to increase that lawyer’s hours and provide law students with more in-house and in-court experience,” added Cirillo.

Housing and employment law are among the services added to most of the student legal aid services societies across the province. “It’s wonderful when we find that we’re working on the same areas of law because we have a great opportunity to work collaboratively. We’re all thinking through how best to teach our case workers what to do to hit the ground running,” she said.

Regarding a possible future expansion in services or any other service gaps, Cirillo felt that it would be best for DLS take some time to plan how to implement these new services to ensure their stability. According to Cirillo, the next step will be to conduct an internal survey of the efficiency of the clinic, under served areas, and constituent needs. Following the results, DLS plans to respond to those needs in a few years, or when the budget will allow for it.

“I think that it’s really important for us to take a pause because this is a lot of expansion in a small amount of time. We need a strategic planning process to properly allocate the funds and ensure security and stability for these plans in the future.”

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