By Neil Armstrong
The African Canadian Legal Clinic (ACLC) is fighting back against what it describes as an attack by Legal Aid Ontario (LAO), one of its major funders.
LAO is an independent but publicly funded and publicly accountable non-profit corporation established to administer the province's legal aid program.
On Aug. 16, David Field, its president and CEO, said the clinic committee of LAO’s board of directors “has decided, under its dispute resolution process, to withdraw LAO’s funding of the African Canadian Legal Clinic (ACLC) effective September 30, 2017. Every dollar of funding currently provided to ACLC will be redirected to a new organization to provide dedicated services to the Black community.”
“LAO’s priority is addressing the legal needs of a very vulnerable segment of our population—members of Black communities who need our help. We have work to do to meet those needs. LAO is committed to doing that work through hearing directly from members of the Black community, working with an advisory committee comprised of community leaders and investing additional funding to improve access to justice for members of the Black community.”
Field said the committee found that ACLC’s board and management have engaged in financial mismanagement and that there has been a lack of board oversight.
“Although LAO’s dispute resolution process is internal, it is clear to me that there is an overriding public interest in what has occurred. Therefore, in the interest of transparency, I have directed that the decisions of the clinic committee and supporting documents be posted on LAO’s website,” he said.
The 103-page final clinic committee decision, dated Aug. 16, 2017, noted that LAO staff first became aware of concerns with respect to the financial management and governance practices at the ACLC in 2009.
But Margaret Parsons, executive director of the ACLC, says the targeting of the legal clinic by LAO is not based on the fiduciary mismanagement of public funds.
She said LAO has selectively focused on three main allegations: a ring charged to the clinic’s credit card, $39,000 from LAO funds paid for taxis, and the payment of what it calls staff overtime bonuses of $121,000 or $150,000.
At a community meeting held at City Hall on Aug. 24, Parsons provided a receipt of $780, dated July 20, 2012, as evidence that the money charged to the credit card was reimbursed.
She said it was not true that LAO funds were used to pay $39,000 for taxis.
“The maximum annual amount paid by LAO funds for taxis is approximately $3,000 for 7 staff. This is much cheaper than paying mileage and parking,” noted a handout given to everyone attending the meeting.
Parsons also refuted LAO’s claim that ACLC staff received “overtime bonuses” of $121,000 or $150,000.
“Payment to staff for overtime hours worked is not a bonus. No employee, in particular, the executive director, has ever in the history of the ACLC received a “bonus.” The board authorized these stipends to staff for overtime work. Why does LAO think that Black lawyers should not be paid for the long hours they work?”
Parsons said it has been a difficult and trying time, a 23-year battle with LAO. She noted that this particular issue started on Sept. 7, 2009 and that it has been ongoing and relentless.
However, she said the outpouring of support, love and encouragement from the community has sustained her and the board of directors.
“Tonight, we want to get our story out, we want to get the truth out, we want to be held accountable by our community. We want to be accountable to our community, we want you to ask the tough questions because we have nothing to hide,” said Parsons to a full committee room.
“This controversy, at its essence, is an accusation of financial mismanagement leveled against the ACLC,” said Parsons.
She said Legal Aid Ontario issued 8 conditions, some of which had several elements, which it required the ACLC to comply with. There were 26 elements in total.
“However, only 2 of the 8 conditions are related to financial matters. All 8 conditions have been met. Not withstanding compliance, LAO is still moving to suspend the funding of the ACLC,” noted the clinic.
ACLC says the extensive scrutiny and longstanding public battle that has existed since the inception of the organization in 1994 has remained unresolved.
“It has now evolved to a place where LAO has decided to suspend funding. This decision will severely affect poor, vulnerable, and marginalized African Canadians who are directly served by the clinic while also adversely impacting on the lives and reputations of the dedicated staff and volunteers at the ACLC.”
But in his statement, Field said the LAO will ensure that there will be no interruption or delay to legal services to Black Ontarians.
“LAO will immediately begin working with members of the community to establish a new community-based organization to deliver legal aid services to Ontario’s Black community. In the meantime, LAO will provide legal services through the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, members of the private bar, and LAO’s Test Case Program,” he said.
In its plan to take action against LAO’s decision, ACLC wants supporters to phone and email Premier Kathleen Wynne and Attorney General Yasir Naqvi urging them to overturn the decision.
Those in attendance were also encouraged to call their MPPs to express their concern about LAO’s decision to cut funding to the ACLC.
“The ACLC is a vital part of the Black Community’s fight against anti-Black racism,” notes the post card campaign addressed to the premier and the attorney general.
There is also an online petition at www.blacklawyersmatter.ca, and a social media campaign at #ACLC, #Black Lawyers Matter, and #Call a Spade a Spade.
“We are calling for Premier Kathleen Wynne and Attorney General, Yasir Naqvi, to conduct a thorough and independent investigation of LAO’s biased, unjust and racist decision to defund the ACLC. It is our hope that their findings will exonerate the ACLC,” says the ACLC in its handout subtitled “Let’s Call a Spade a Spade.”