Norton Rose Fulbright partners with BMO to assist Pro Bono Ontario Hotline, highlights A2J

By Amanda Jerome

Law360 Canada (July 14, 2023, 1:46 PM EDT) -- Norton Rose Fulbright (NRF) and BMO Financial Group (BMO) have joined forces to staff the Pro Bono Ontario (PBO) Free Legal Advice Hotline throughout July, highlighting the firm’s commitment to access to justice as legal organizations across the country raise the alarm over backlogs in civil and family court.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a massive surge in demand for legal services across Ontario,” said PBO executive director, Lynn Burns.

“We are thankful for the support and happy to welcome lawyers from our partners BMO and NRF to our hotline family. This sponsorship and support will help make a difference in people’s lives,” she added in a statement.

Jennifer Teskey, Norton Rose Fulbright

Jennifer Teskey, Norton Rose Fulbright

Jennifer Teskey, NRF’s Canadian national chair of litigation and disputes and Canadian head of financial institutions, said the firm is “thrilled to support Pro Bono Ontario with our colleagues at BMO.”

“This is part of our firm’s pro bono commitment to help bridge the justice gap by providing legal services to those most in need. It is extremely important for us to be able to leverage our skills and support pro bono initiatives in our communities,” she added in a statement.

In an interview with Law360 Canada, Teskey explained that, for some time, Canadian banks have had a “Financial Institutions Day” where they “partner with Pro Bono Ontario.”

“This year, when Financial Institutions Day came along, we reached out to BMO to see if we could partner with them in the initiative. That spawned a discussion around joining in a partnership and working with Pro Bono Ontario,” she added, noting the companies would work together “as a team” throughout July.

According to the firm’s press release, lawyers from NRF and BMO staff the hotlines every Wednesday, providing counsel on a “wide range of everyday issues that people need help with, including civil procedure, employment law, housing, consumer protection, consumer debt, corporate law for small businesses, charities and non-profits, and creating powers of attorney for property and personal care.”

The firm hosted its first “in-person call centre event in over three years” on July 12, the release added.

Teskey, who participated in the in-person event, said it was a “real success.”

“As you can imagine, a law firm pivoting to a call centre is not something that we necessarily do every day,” she said, noting the effort had “incredible support” from the firm’s IT, facilities and clients and markets teams.

“We were able to host our friends from BMO and our friends from PBO, who were also in attendance,” she added, noting the day “far exceeded” everybody’s expectations.

“I understand from Pro Bono that it was the single largest uptake that they had in volunteerism ever in Pro Bono history,” Teskey said, noting that the volunteers were set up in a large boardroom with computers and headsets, taking “calls from members of the Ontario public all day.”

For Norton Rose Fulbright, pro bono work is “extremely vital,” Teskey stressed.

“Access to justice in this province is a considerable issue, and it is something that we all, to our mind at Norton Rose Fulbright, have an obligation to try to correct,” she added, noting that the firm’s partnership with BMO is “one step towards helping to address the issue.”

“By no means, however, is one day or one month going to correct the issue. And that is why it’s through concerted efforts by lawyers banding together through various organizations, coming together to really work towards giving the time that we’ve got,” she said, emphasizing that lawyers have a “unique skill set” to be utilized.

“While community involvement and volunteerism is extremely important in all manner of things, when you have a skill set that you're able to leverage to help people and help the public, I think it’s really important that we all really focus on the job that needs to be done and that is giving people a level playing field and getting that access to justice,” she emphasized.

The partnership with BMO, Teskey said, has inspired a “lot of excitement” and “camaraderie.” The firm has already begun discussions with PBO on how it can turn this initiative into a regular occurrence.

“Access to justice is hugely important to all of us at Norton Rose Fulbright, but it’s also something that I’m really excited about in terms of what the future holds,” she said, noting that “even this drop in the bucket,” when aggregated, shows a “real opportunity to address this issue.”

“I’m really looking forward to continuing on this journey,” she added.

Stéphanie Jules, co-chair of BMO’s Legal Regulatory and Compliance DE&I Council, said “BMO’s team of innovative and dedicated professionals care deeply about giving back to our communities and is proud of its long-standing partnership with Pro Bono Ontario.”

“BMO’s purpose, to boldly grow the good in business and life, drives the progress we make for a thriving economy, sustainable future and inclusive society. Working with Pro Bono Ontario we are using our time, knowledge and resources to help close the justice gap,” she added in a statement.

According to the release, Pro Bono Ontario’s Free Legal Advice Hotline, which was developed to respond to unmet legal needs across the province, has seen a “50 per cent surge in calls since 2020.”

“Last year, the hotline assisted 30,000 callers with various legal needs,” the release noted.

The dire need for access to justice in Ontario, and across Canada, has been raised by legal organizations such as the Ontario Bar Association (OBA) and The Advocates’ Society. Last month, the OBA hosted “Bail the Boat: Addressing Ontario’s Overflowing Civil Court System,” with lawyers gathering into breakout sessions to come up with innovative ideas to address the backlog. Shortly after, The Advocates’ Society issued an urgent call to action to “solve the endemic delays plaguing the delivery of civil and family justice across Canada.”

“To my mind, it comes down to intentionality,” Teskey said about the access to justice issue, noting that pro bono work is something the firm does on a “national basis.”

“For many years, our lawyers have been engaged with Pro Bono Ontario and other pro bono organizations across the country, but in order to crack this nut, it requires cohesion and intentionality in terms of how we execute on solving the problem. Having disparate initiatives,” she said, is not “the way forward.”

“I think, to really get to the core of the issue, it requires everybody banding together and recognizing the issue and coming together with a plan in terms of how to staff these lines, how to get people access to lawyers,” she stressed.

NRF’s pro bono initiatives include Calgary, Vancouver and Montreal.

The Calgary team “donates around 200 hours each year to providing summary legal advice to people in need through our work Pro Bono Law Alberta (PBLA),” the firm explained, noting that the volunteers help PBLA with a Civil Claims Duty Student (CCDC), an Amicus Program, and a Legal Clinic.

The Vancouver office has “helped hundreds of people through the summary advice clinic at Access Pro Bono, a non-profit charitable organization that provides pro bono support to people of limited means, and through the BC Disability Alliance, aimed at supporting people living with disabilities on low incomes,” the firm added, noting that the Vancouver office has also created a new partnership with Access Pro Bono where all the firm’s “summer and articling students assist with merit assessments for their Civil Roster Program, and help screen client applications.”

NRF lawyers in Montreal volunteer with Justice Pro Bono and “participate in a legal clinic that helps refugee claimants claim refugee status in Canada.”

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