Access to Justice Elusive for Refugees in Canada

For countless Canadians, the access to justice crisis remains a real and insurmountable problem. “Nearly 12 million Canadians will experience at least 1 legal problem in a given 3-year period. Few will have the resources to solve them,” and many more will not know where to turn.

Consider what you would do if presented with a legal problem. Who would you turn to? In a recent study, when individuals in Canada were asked who they would approach, a young man in London responded with “I would go to a lawyer, a free lawyer, I can’t afford a lawyer, and I would agree with him on the spot”. A middle aged man from Ottawa said, “I don’t think many people know where to go or what to do to get access to justice.”

Confused and lacking means, many choose to self-represent. In fact, “as a result of inaccessible legal services, 50% of people try to solve their problems on their own with no or minimal legal or authoritative non-legal assistance.”

For the most vulnerable segments of the Canadian population, such as refugees, challenges in establishing their refugee claims continue to intensify. Recently, changes to the federal Budget Implementation Act have resulted in women making gender-based claims being barred from the refugee process and deprived of access to a legal aid lawyer.

“The result of the Canadian changes is clear: women survivors of domestic violence now have fewer protections in Canada, which places them at risk of deportation to the very dangers they fled,” said Jenn McIntyre, Executive Director of Romero House. Many LGBTQ2IQs individuals could also be deported given the combination of a new refugee bar and the absence of legal aid. Individuals who filed a refugee claim in the US are ineligible to make a claim for refugee protection in Canada.

The Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Richard Wagner says legal aid is “essential” to ensuring the justice system is fair and efficient for all, yet cuts to legal aid services – especially towards refugees – undermine this problem. 30 per cent of funding for legal aid has been slashed, leaving many with no recourses for legal representation.

This is not a political issue nor is it a legal issue; this is a human issue.

We must call on the federal government to resolve the refugee legal aid crisis. The Ontario government’s cancellation of legal aid for refugees and immigrants, coupled with federal withdrawal of refugee rights protections and increased deportation, has led to an absence of counsel for vulnerable individuals in refugee and immigration proceedings. There is no real opportunity for most individuals to obtain counsel.

Refugees need lawyers more than ever or else they risk deportation and persecution. We must call on the federal government to provide resources – like emergency funding – to the legal aid program, as well as an inter-governmental approach towards this crisis.

Canada is currently the global leader in refugee resettlement. We should set an example for the world and stand up for the dignity of refugees.


  • David Menendez was born in Bogotá, Colombia and raised in Canada. He is a law student at the University of Ottawa and holds a Bachelors degree in political science from the same institution. Passionate about social justice issues, he is currently the Community Outreach Intern at CPJ. Follow me on twitter at @DavidMenendez20

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