With myriad obstacles, seen and unseen, regularly presenting themselves in daily life, it can be difficult to fully appreciate the unique challenges clients face, but as licensees, we have a responsibility to acknowledge, anticipate and attempt to understand a client’s individual needs and accommodate them accordingly. Tailored accommodations, personalized service and a barrier-free environment alleviate the undue hardship that clients often endure, all the while breaking down stigma and miscommunication and contributing to a smooth and just legal process.
There is no one-size-fits-all strategy when it comes to accommodation. Clients, regardless of their abilities, whether negotiating psychological or physical challenges, all need equitable accommodation. Therefore, it is imperative to be proactive by having policies and procedures in place prior to contact with a client who may need accommodations. A willingness to adapt and reimagine our current approach can make a world of difference.
This starts with continuous education. Educate yourself and your fellow lawyers. (Congratulations, you’ve taken the first step towards doing so!)
Plan to implement an inclusive design approach that ensures a barrier-free environment and equal participation. Verify that this approach allows for access to the greatest extent possible. It is crucial to examine your business from all angles, from intake through to the end of a matter, looking at each stage of this process from the client's perspective through a logistical and empathetic lens. Determine all the ways in which your operation could create friction. Instill a human connection by building trust and understanding with your client. J. Andrew Sprague, vice-chair of OBA’s Constitutional, Civil Liberties and Human Rights Law Section and moderator of the OBA’s recent program on “Exploring a Lawyer’s Obligation to Accommodate Clients,” reminds us that “being reasonable is imperative to accommodating clients.”
Inaccessible tribunal forms, what can be an overwhelming physical landscape of a hearing room, fast-paced proceedings without adequate breaks, and ambiguity and misunderstanding of the legal process are just some of the challenges for which clients may need accommodation.
So, how can we combat these challenges and provide adequate accommodations?
- First things first, accommodations must meet the client’s specific needs. It’s important to meet clients where they are.
- Create a welcoming and inclusive space for all.
- Train the first point of contact (legal assistant, secretary, law clerk, etc.) to ask clients what accommodations they need and be prepared to provide that.
- When in doubt, simply ask the client about their needs. Don't assume; ask. Clients could have a similar disability on paper but require different accommodations.
- Evaluate one’s requests on a case-by-case basis.
- Find out what's not working. When you determine that, explore a new strategy or option.
- Allow for a service animal or support person to be made available.
- Ask the courts to grant deadline extensions if needed.
- Ensure that scheduling adheres to the client’s needs. For example, ensure frequent breaks to accommodate medication administration times.
- Ensure clients have the same understanding of the information conveyed. Offer to send a summary of what was discussed in an accessible format.
- Periodically check in. Has anything changed for your client? What procedural accommodations are necessary/ could be made? This needs to be an ongoing discussion at various stages of the file.
- Consult knowledgeable colleagues, clients, organizations such as ARCH, legal services/resources and guides.
- Know what you're able to provide and what you're not.
- It is imperative to remember that we have a duty to accommodate without a diagnosis!
- Thoroughly understand some of the applicable legal requirements for accommodation, such as:
A) The Ontario Human Rights Code.
B) Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. This act aims to make Ontario accessible by 2025 with the goal of full inclusion.
C) Rules of Professional Conduct, which outline the professional obligations for licensees and our duty to accommodate in accordance with the Human Rights laws in Ontario.
A thorough understanding of all three is essential to sustaining good practice. “They all overlap and as lawyers you are not allowed to cut corners just because accommodation can be difficult,” says Hina Ghaus, staff lawyer, ARCH Disability Law Centre.
It is important to acknowledge that some clients may have difficulty understanding or appreciating information pertaining to a case. Allow clients to make their own informed choices, exercising a higher level of autonomy. Provide clients with the assurance that they are able to make the decisions necessary on their matter. Give clients a voice by advocating for their needs. Frame this using language of access to justice and the need to have barriers removed for your client.
Lastly, establish a feedback process. This not only helps you and the client problem-solve in the moment, but this demonstrates that you have a desire to improve your practice holistically.
The pandemic has given us the time and ability to review our processes and forced many of us to provide our services remotely. Why not go a step further and make it a priority to provide clients with accommodations that suit their needs fully? They say that the best way to learn is by doing. Go ahead … focus on policies and procedures that are actionable. Bake them into your practice, be consistent and implement the necessary steps towards change.
OBA Program: Exploring a Lawyer’s Obligation to Accommodate Clients
Ontario Human Rights Code policy on ableism and discrimination based on disability
Tips for Lawyers and Paralegals on Providing Accessible Legal Services to Persons with Disabilities in Ontario
ARCH Disability Law Services resources
Case Consult service for lawyers and paralegals
practicePro retainers (Different retainers are available in different formats, which should be tailored to meet your needs.)
LSO /LawPRO Member Assistance Program
About the author
Veronika Medeiros is a Toronto-based student, legal assistant and performing artist who graduated with a BFA in performance creation from York University's Theatre Program. She is a young advocate for justice, with a passion for learning, who hopes to inspire young people to continue being authentic in all they do. Veronika has a desired interest in real estate, litigation & sports and entertainment law.