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This article was published 9/1/2019 (1019 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A Legal Aid Manitoba plan to have non-lawyers represent refugee claimants could put people who fled for their lives at risk and end up costing the system more, critics of the proposal warn.
"The refugee determination process can mean life or death," said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
"Our main concern is to make sure that people who need protection are properly represented in the refugee claim process," Dench said Wednesday from Montreal, noting the plan to use non-lawyer staff is not allowed under Immigration and Refugee Protection Act regulations.
"If someone is paid, they cannot represent somebody under the legislation unless the person is a lawyer in good standing with a law society or a registered immigration consultant," she said.
"The regulation is there to make sure people are qualified.
"Refugee determination is a very highly complicated area of law. It’s high stakes, too. If they lose, they face removal from Canada back to the country that they fled. Their life and safety might be at stake."
Legal Aid Manitoba says it has a statutory duty to deliver advice and representation services but, in an atmosphere of increasing demand and complexity of legal matters, it faces challenges.
"Innovations such as using non-lawyers (under the supervision of staff lawyers) to deliver quality legal services has resulted in savings in social justice areas such as welfare appeals and residential tenancy matters," Legal Aid Manitoba chairman Tim Valgardson said.
That’s what it aims to do with cases involving refugee claimants who appear before the refugee protection division of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, and the training has already begun.
University of Ottawa’s Refugee Hub has provided three training sessions so far for Legal Aid staff lawyers and non-lawyer "advocates," Valgardson said. They’ve had presentations from the IRBC and, over the next several months, the non-lawyers will gain experience by helping staff lawyers on board matters, he said.
An influx in the number of 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, Valgardson said.
The number of immigration cases has dropped since the 2017-18 fiscal year, he said, but volumes in other areas, such as criminal law, continue to increase.
Valgardson said Legal Aid is working with Welcome Place in Winnipeg, where University of Manitoba law students are helping refugee claimants prepare paperwork.
They’re looking to "promote and evaluate service innovations such as the pilot project we are contemplating regarding matters before the refugee protection division of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada," he said.
International human rights lawyer David Matas is part of a Canadian Bar Association working group looking at the legality of Legal Aid Manitoba using non-lawyers to represent refugee claimants.
"I question its wisdom," Matas said, adding it might have the opposite effect Legal Aid is hoping for. "You’re not saving time or money, you’re chewing up time and money."
He explained those who aren’t represented by a lawyer and denied refugee protection have a better shot at being granted an appeal — and another hearing — because they can claim they weren’t given a fair shake.
"It’s not sufficient to just have counsel, you’ve got to have competent counsel."
Matas noted the huge influx of refugee claimants who arrived in Manitoba in 2017-18 was 40 times as many as seen in the past — so many, neither the bar nor the board could keep up. In the time since then, the number of refugee claims has dropped dramatically.
"We’re now back to a more normal situation," Matas said.
"What Legal Aid is doing is reacting to what happened in the past rather than what’s happening in the present."
And promoting non-lawyers to do legal work shouldn’t be its focus, he said.
"They’re wandering off into a field that’s not theirs."
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.