CBA urges Ottawa to give lawyers immediate access to online portal for citizenship applications

By Cristin Schmitz

Law360 Canada (November 9, 2022, 11:33 AM EST) -- Citing its “deep concerns over hindered access to justice” for would-be citizens, the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) is asking Ottawa to immediately enable lawyers to access, on their clients’ behalf, the online federal portal for making citizenship applications.

The department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) launched an online portal in August 2021 enabling individuals to make online, rather than paper, applications for grants of citizenship, and it expanded that portal to individuals applying for proofs of citizenship in November 2021. 

However, those efficiency-enhancing moves for would-be citizens were made without providing simultaneous portal access to the applicants’ representatives (i.e. lawyers and registered consultants) who normally fill in and submit their clients’ applications.

The CBA had already written IRCC in May 2021 raising objections to the exclusion of counsel from any online IRCC platforms, and followed up again asking the government to integrate a role for counsel in all online platforms, and to refrain from rolling out online platforms without representative access. IRCC responded that the situation was temporary and caused by the pandemic. No Citizenship Representative Portal has emerged in the intervening 17 months.

CBA president Steeves Bujold

CBA president Steeves Bujold

As a result, CBA president Steeves Bujold of Montreal’s McCarthy Tétrault, wrote separately Oct. 27 to federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser and federal Justice Minister David Lametti “to express deep concerns over hindered access to justice for individuals seeking legal advice and representation in citizenship matters.”

“Becoming a Canadian citizen or attaining proof of Canadian citizen status is of pivotal importance to individuals,” Bujold told Fraser.

“By depriving individuals of proper counsel through their exclusion from the online citizenship portal, IRCC has created a barrier to a fair citizenship process. ... IRCC should not compromise applicants’ right to the assistance of counsel — even temporarily — as it modernizes its application processes. We respectfully submit that it is paramount that IRCC include representatives in online citizenship applications without delay.”

At press time, IRCC told The Lawyer’s Daily it was working on responding to a reporter’s questions, which included asking: if, and when, will the government provide a Citizenship Representative Portal?

In the meantime, the CBA’s national immigration law section chair, Lisa Middlemiss of Montreal’s Gomberg Dalfen S.E.N.C., estimates thousands of would-be citizens are affected by the citizenship portal’s exclusion of counsel, thus relegating clients to the often slower process of applying on paper, with the assistance of their lawyer, or alternatively contending with sharing their computer screens with counsel, or providing screenshots, as lawyers walk them through filling out the detailed lengthy forms — a cumbersome task, which unnecessarily increases costs.

“It’s extremely time-consuming [for citizenship applicants and counsel] and there’s room for error, because if a client doesn’t upload something properly, the lawyer might not be able to see, whereas if we were able to file applications online, as we do with permanent residence applications ... we can ensure everything is in tiptop shape.”

Lisa Middlemiss, CBA national immigration law section chair

Lisa Middlemiss, CBA national immigration law section chair

Middlemiss added that the availability of citizenship applications online, does not make them easier to fill out correctly, nor eliminate the risk that an individual will file an incomplete application or worse, inadvertently misrepresent something — “which could have fatal consequences on a citizenship application.”

“There could be serious consequences if someone fails to disclose something [or] doesn’t understand the question right,” Middlemiss said.

“Some people really need the help of a lawyer,” she emphasized, including those too busy to apply online, and vulnerable individuals, such as those who struggle with typing and computers, or with communicating in English and French.

“It’s a bit mystifying to understand why [a citizenship representative portal] is such a low priority, when it hampers all of us in our practices, and it hampers clients from being able to get a representative who can go ahead and submit their online application from A to Z, without them having to sit on a screen share with their lawyer for three or four hours to go through [the documentation], screen by screen, in a very painstaking way,” Middlemiss remarked. “It’s a barrier to justice.”

In his letter to Fraser, Bujold told the immigration minister that individuals who retain a lawyer to assist with their citizenship application “have a right to fair process, which includes accessing the appropriate technological process.”

“As it modernizes its processes, IRCC must not impede lawyers’ ability to represent clients at pivotal stages of their immigration and citizenship applications,” Bujold said.

“Excluding lawyers from new technologies puts lawyers in a difficult position that undermines the solicitor-client relationship,” he added. “Lawyers can only advise clients on the sidelines, risk breaching law society rules, or fulfil their mandate by submitting paper applications, resulting in slower processing times,” he explained. “It is important that lawyers are equipped with the tools to exercise their functions on behalf of their clients, without artificial constraints.”

Bujold applauded the federal government for IRCC’s portal that enables lawyers to submit permanent residence applications online for clients and for more recent moves enabling counsel to submit applications on behalf of clients for permanent resident cards and permanent resident travel documents in the PR Representative Portal.

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