Ottawa funds litigators to devise legal weapons to fight anti-Black racism in justice system

The Lawyers Daily

Wednesday, November 09, 2022  By Cristin Schmitz The Lawyers Daily

Litigators helping clients fight anti-black racism in criminal, child protection, immigration, or civil law matters may soon find assistance at Toronto’s Black Legal Action Centre (BLAC), which is getting $1 million in federal aid to be used, in part, to pay private bar lawyers to create factums, and gather expert evidence, that will assist in raising cutting edge legal arguments aimed at eradicating individual and systemic anti-Black racism in Ontario’s justice system.

On Nov. 9, federal Justice Minister David Lametti and human rights lawyer Moya Teklu, BLAC’s executive director and general counsel, announced a $1-million federal grant — to be disbursed over four years through to March 31, 2026, via Justice Canada’s Justice Partnership and Innovation program — for BLAC’s “Combatting Anti-Black Racism through Litigation and System Navigation” project.

Teklu told The Lawyer’s Daily the specialized legal aid clinic, which opened its doors in 2019 as part of Legal Aid Ontario, will put out a call soon (likely this week) asking lawyers, academics, representatives of community organizations and people “with lived experience” to join the advisory committee that is going to map out next steps in the innovative project.

Advisory committee members will be asked to work pro bono, but the private bar lawyers who help carry out the project will be paid, Teklu said.

“We have obviously, as a Black Legal Action Centre, raised race-based arguments often, and have intervened in ... cases dealing with s. 15” Charter equality rights, Teklu said. “We’ve also developed training for members of the [legal aid] clinic system on how to raise race-based arguments in poverty law. But this is the first time that we will be doing this kind of work in the areas of child protection, and immigration and prison law.”

The project will also encompass civil actions aimed at holding the state to account, such as personal injury suits emanating from police misconduct or from deaths in prison, Teklu said. “We’ll be helping, or working with, members of the private bar, academics and experts to develop factums, memoranda, expert reports, to help lawyers and other legal service providers raise race-based arguments in these areas of law.”

Teklu said BLAC recently hired an international lawyer, who is also certified in project management, Abamba Godspower, to manage the project.

“For the first few months, we’ll work with the advisory committee to identify the areas that we should be focusing on and the tools and the resources,” she advised.  “We’re not going to be ... hiring staff, but we’ll be engaging members of the private bar and paying them to draft these resources.”

Teklu said Legal Aid Ontario has also agreed to dedicate staff support to the project, such as senior counsel to review and revise the materials the project produces. “Then it's a question of rolling out these materials and developing the training resources to accompany these guides,” she explained. “Because what we don’t want to have happen is to produce these factums, these great documents, and then nobody uses them. So we’ll be focused on communication.”

Teklu noted that an important feature at the project’s back-end will be to have its effectiveness evaluated by University of Toronto sociology professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, whose academic research examines the intersections of race, crime and criminal justice. 

“What we're hoping to do is for him to look at whether the use of these reports by lawyers ... lead to better justice outcomes for clients, and whether they change the experiences and perceptions of the legal system of clients,” Teklu said. “So we’ll be doing a lot of data collection surveys, focus groups and things like that. And then, when we have the findings of that ...  if we’d find ‘Actually, yes, this does lead to better justice outcomes and better experiences,’ then we’ll use that information to advocate for continued funding.”

As described by a Nov. 9 DOJ press release, BLAC’s project will:

  • provide legal professionals and other experts with the information they need to raise legal arguments related to individual and systemic anti-Black racism in the justice system;
  • increase access to justice for Black Ontarians, and strengthen the Canadian legal framework by ensuring that legal professionals representing Black clients are putting the best legal arguments forward in the areas of criminal, child protection, immigration, prison and civil law; and
  • pay “system navigators” to provide information, advice, and supports to Black people who have a legal issue in the area of criminal, child protection, immigration, or civil law.

On behalf of the government, Lametti said in a statement “we are committed to fighting systemic racism and discrimination, which continue to be painful realities for Black communities. ... By providing support to BLAC, we are helping bring systemic changes to address this unacceptable reality. This investment will support our efforts to address systemic discrimination against Black and racialized Canadians, and improve access to justice and fairness in our justice system.”