COVID pandemic prompts initiative to offer free legal aid to anyone in Canada

More than 300 lawyers with varying experience and law students signed up to provide service

TORONTO — The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a group of young lawyers to launch a project to offer free legal advice remotely to anyone in the country.

Dubbed the National Canadian Lawyers Initiative, the aim is to connect people in need with professionals who can offer help and direction.

“The lockdown has created just a myriad of issues for people legally,” said Alex Don, founder and president of the initiative. “(But) what we quickly came to understand was that this isn’t just a COVID problem. This is a massive access-to-justice problem.”

Unlike traditional legal aid, people accessing the new service via the website https://natcanlaw.com/ will not have to first show they’re broke. Each client, however, will be capped at a maximum of five hours of service.

“We accept everyone,” said Don, who was called to the bar last year. “People who can afford lawyers already have lawyers. People who really need it will come to us.”

To date, he said, more than 300 lawyers with varying experience and law students, some of whom have lost their summer jobs due to the pandemic, have signed on to a goal of providing more than 40,000 hours of services at no charge. Most are in Ontario but others are located across the country, and their expertise spans many areas of the law.

Georgina Carson, a 30-year family law veteran in Toronto, praised the project as an inspiring work in progress and said she was happy to be involved.

“I’m especially inspired by the fact that it’s young lawyers who’ve taken the initiative just to get it off the ground,” Carson said. “It’s a silver lining out of everything that’s going on to try to help other people and also students getting experience as well.”

For now, she said, the initiative provides an opportunity for people to get urgent summary advice — more triage than an effort to take on court or other substantial legal work.

Those accessing the service via the website need to provide contact information and indicate the legal nature of their problem. The person is then matched with an appropriate legal adviser, who, if needed, can seek help from more experienced mentors.

Don, who was working in Toronto before the pandemic, said he reached out to a couple of fellow McGill University-trained lawyers in early May and the initiative was federally registered late that month as a not-for-profit. The Law Society of Ontario was also quick to give its blessing, he said. The aim was to register with law societies across the country.

The project was initially slated as a “12-month sprint” in reaction to COVID-19. Among legal issues resulting from the pandemic have been those related to commercial leases, broken contracts and tenancy problems. So far, about two dozen people have made use of the service — most COVID-related — but the number was expected to grow as people learn about it.

The organization has also tapped lawyers with expertise to produce answers to a list of frequently asked questions, such as on employment law or worker rights in the gig economy.

The National Canadian Lawyers Initiative also has a volunteer-run advisory board.

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