Legal Aid leaves lawyers in financial dire straits

By Sharon Ho
Local News - Saturday, October 09, 2004 @ 07:00

A troubled new computer system at Legal Aid Ontario is pushing some Kingston lawyers to the edge of financial ruin.

“We’re never sure if we’re going to be in business or not,” said lawyer Richard Bourdeau. He and his partner, Caroline Yull, started a practice together in 2002 and about half their work is for legal aid.

They haven’t been paid for their family-law work since

July. The government owes them about $15,000.

“It [the delay in payments] is straining our resources,” said Bourdeau.

Their firm has been able to survive because of their work for private clients.

About 70 per cent of lawyer Michael Mandelcorn’s work is for Legal Aid. He estimates he’s owed about $20,000. He has taken out loans and extended his line of credit to survive.

“I’m used to having a steady stream of income coming in,” he said. “I stopped getting thousands of dollars.”

Mandelcorn doesn’t know how much longer he can survive without steady payments from Legal Aid. He plans to assess his situation at the end of the year.

“I’m gonna stay as long as I can still make some degree of living at it,” Mandelcorn said.

The lawyers say they never had these problems before the government installed the $24-million system.

It was installed in May “to provide better service to clients and lawyers,” said Leann Faria, a communications officer for Legal Aid Ontario.

The government aims to pay lawyers within 60 days.

It warned lawyers in May of a two- to three-week delay in payments because it would have to work out “bugs in the system” such as not paying GST on the bills. According to Faria, the problems arose from customizing the computer system for the government. Legal Aid continued to send out notices throughout the spring and summer to warn lawyers about continuing delays.

However, four months later, it still hasn’t caught up on its payments.

“Their stories don’t pay the bills,” said Wayne King.

The busy Kingston criminal lawyer used to be paid weekly for his work. But in the last six months, he’s been getting paid only once a month.

King, who’s been practising for 23 years, can survive the financial problems because only a quarter of his work is for legal aid.

Bourdeau said Legal Aid Ontario paid them this week for a criminal law bill. The payment allowed Bourdeau and Yull to pay their bills and escape debt – this month.

He’s unsure what will happen in November if they don’t get paid by the end of this month.

“We’ll have to reassess our situation,” Bourdeau said.

As of this week, Legal Aid Ontario was still trying to catch up on several hundred criminal law accounts, according to Faria. The same message was posted on the agency’s website in September.

Legal Aid is almost caught up paying its family accounts, but Faria couldn’t say how many of these were past the 60-day payment period.

The government has set up a hotline for lawyers to call if they’re being seriously affected by the tardy payments.

“What we can do is look into the account and see what can be done to rectify the situation so the lawyer can be paid faster,” said Faria.

Despite his financial troubles, Bourdeau has yet to call Legal Aid Ontario.

“We usually don’t get much information from them,” he said.

He was also reluctant to call because he heard “it’s frowned upon.”

Mandelcorn, on the other hand, has been contacting the government since June. His legal assistant, Darlene Barrett, spends half a day a week working on their payment problems. She calls the government every week. Before May, she rarely called.

“Before the system was implemented we never had these problems,” said Barrett. “The accounts were paid within 30 to 40 days. If there was a problem, we would get a response saying they’d be paid within one to two weeks or it’d be looked at.”

Mandelcorn, who’s been practising law for 17 years, has only received partial payments for hundreds of dollars.

“We got partial payments without rhyme or reason,” he said.

He hasn’t been paid since Sept. 21 and has outstanding bills from July.

“The return for a criminal law practice is never great,” Mandelcorn said. “Any disruption [in receiving payment] causes problems.”

“It’s not as if I have a huge reservoir of money for contingencies. Most legal aid lawyers go from month to month.”

Any payments Mandelcorn receives from the government are often incorrect.

He said he’s often paid the incorrect hourly rate for a lawyer of his experience. Mandelcorn should be paid $92 an hour, but the computer system will only recognize him at the lowest rate of $72 an hour.

According to Barrett, Mandelcorn ends up having to write a letter for each incorrect account explaining why he should be paid a higher rate. Barrett then has to resend the bill to her contact at Legal Aid Ontario who’s been helping Mandelcorn get paid.

Mandelcorn’s other payment problems include not getting discretionary increases – payment for hours of work that exceed the pre-approved hours. He never had a problem getting paid for these increases before the new system was installed.

Mandelcorn also hasn’t been receiving the administrative fee of about $40 for each legal aid certificate he submits, he said.

He doesn’t understand why the government didn’t ensure there was a way of continuing to pay lawyers as it fixed the computer problems.

Legal Aid Ontario’s Faria attributed the computer system problems to the delay caused by training staff to use the system and delays in getting the system up and running.

“We did extensive testing and development with the new system before going live,” Faria said.

“We knew we would have delays.”

She said there was no way of using the old system at the same time the new system was installed because it would have been like using two different sets of accounting books.

Faria insists the system is now working properly. She said Legal Aid continues to fix problems as they appear.

For criminal lawyer Dan Scully, the problems in getting paid by Legal Aid are nothing new. About 80 per cent of his work is for legal aid.

Scully said his payments from the government have always been sporadic.

“We don’t know if we’ve been paid until we go to the bank and ask,” he said, referring to the government’s direct deposit payments.

But Scully believes Ontario has the best legal aid program.

“It’s the Cadillac of the Canadian legal aid systems,” he said.

“They cover far more things and they pay better.”