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This article was published 15/1/2019 (1006 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
While critics say that Legal Aid Manitoba shouldn’t be allowed to start using staff "advocates" rather than lawyers to file refugee claims, the man at the Winnipeg charity in charge of helping refugee claimants with their legal documents says the rise in number of cases is so overwhelming that it should be permitted.
"We're really worried," said Ghezae Hagos, the leader of in-Canada protection services at Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council's Welcome Place. A few years ago, his department helped 100 to 120 newly-arrived asylum seekers annually by preparing their basis of claim reports and paperwork. Last year, they helped 736, he said. That's down from 1,126 in 2017.
"We have, still, big numbers and migration all across the world is so big," said Hagos. He is in charge of the only free service of its kind in Winnipeg, helping asylum seekers prepare their initial legal documents including the "basis of claim" form explaining why they need refugee protection in Canada. It's funded entirely by donations with two full-time staff including himself, and relies on University of Manitoba law school volunteers. "The students have been extremely helpful," said Hagos. "We could not do it without them." But more long-term help and funding is needed, he said.
Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, only lawyers in good standing with a law society, law students supervised by a lawyer, registered immigration consultants and regulated paralegals — which only Ontario has — can be paid to represent clients before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
The unpaid work that's done at Welcome Place, such as preparing refugee claimants' initial legal documents and application forms, could be done by a trained staffer at Legal Aid under a lawyer's supervision, said Hagos.
"It's a good idea," he said. The legal aid advocates could be a huge help, said Hagos.
Critics argue that using advocates instead of lawyers may put refugee claimants at risk if they don't receive proper legal help in the first place and are sent back to the country they fled. The problem is lawyers aren't keen to take on the time-consuming cases with what Legal Aid Manitoba pays for refugee claims.
"In my case, I accept work on legal aid certificates and, in most cases, I am not paid for the time necessary to properly prepare and represent a refugee claimant," Winnipeg lawyer Alastair Clarke said. "I accept that these cases require me to work pro bono."
Legal Aid, which has a statutory duty to deliver legal advice and representation, has proposed that its advocates on staff who are trained in legal issues and supervised by a lawyer should be allowed to represent refugee claimants. It says that refugee claims cost Legal Aid Manitoba $260,000 in 2016-17, $515,000 in 2017-18 and $380,000 so far in the 2018-19 fiscal year.
The Immigration and Refugee Board said Tuesday that it is considering Legal Aid's proposal.
"The IRB is interested in hearing from stakeholders to explore new and innovative ways to improve efficiency, with the objective of improving the timeliness of refugee protection decisions, without sacrificing the fairness of proceedings and the quality of the decisions," regional spokeswoman Melissa Anderson said.
The average national wait time for a hearing before the IRB refugee protection division is now 21 months, Anderson said. In Winnipeg, the board increased the number of such hearings to 403 in 2018 compared to 305 in 2017, she said.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.