Interview with Matt Cohen

  • October 03, 2021
  • Matt Cohen

David Milosevic

Good morning Matt, thank you for joining the Ontario Bar Association Civil Litigation Section today and sitting down for this interview on access to justice.

Matt Cohen

David, thanks so much. It's great to be with you. And I'm compelled to say, you're particularly qualified to ask questions on this topic as somebody who has poured thousands of hours into directly providing access to justice, to folks who would otherwise go without it.

David Milosevic

Well, I appreciate that plug and as they say, I haven't paid for it. Thank you. Just, I want to get a little bit of a background Matt, can you tell me a little bit about Pro Bono Ontario, how long it's been around, the types of clients it serves and perhaps you can tell me first about your role with Pro Bono Ontario.

Matt Cohen

Certainly. So big year for Pro Bono Ontario, this is our 20th anniversary year. We're a registered Ontario charity founded in 2001, with just the typical shoestring desk and a phone and an executive director, who's still our executive director Lynn Burns. And we've evolved into a still small but much larger organization that's now providing civil non-family legal services to folks in Ontario who can't afford a lawyer and don't qualify for legal aid. My role there is to oversee the legal services, I'm a civil litigator by training and background, spent time at a large firm, spent time at a small firm before I joined PBO in 2010. So my role involves managing the delivery of legal services that facilitate access to justice by linking pro bono lawyers with clients who need them. And in my role as staff lawyer, as is the case with my other colleagues who are licensees, we also roll up our sleeves and directly provide legal services to clients.

Matt Cohen

So importantly, and in terms of our area, we've historically sought to compliment and not duplicate the services of legal aid. So that's why it's important to keep in mind that we're in the civil non-family area, which also happens to be, according to studies over the years, the highest area of unmet legal need in Ontario.

David Milosevic

Yeah a statistic I saw was that all of legal aid, spending for legal services 9% went towards civil non-family. So not a lot of spending directed toward that area that Pro Bono Ontario was covering.

Matt Cohen

That's right. That's very interesting, but I wouldn't have even guessed a number that high. There used to be, as you probably know, a civil certificate program where folks could get an opinion on the merits of the civil case and perhaps get representation. That program has been discontinued. So certainly if you count things like housing and employment in civil non-family there's certainly some legal aid contribution in those areas. But I would certainly stand by that sentiment, that essentially civil non-family is unsupported by legal aid and has kept us very busy. So self-represented litigants in the civil courts, residential housing, employment, consumer protection, estates. And we can't forget about the legal needs of charities, nonprofits, and small businesses, not on a dispute side, but on the side of legal issues that really help those enterprises thrive and ensure that they're not spending money they don't have on legal resources.

David Milosevic

And Pro Bono, Ontario, Matt, operates, apart from the dedicated staff, such as yourself, the legal services are provided by volunteer lawyers. Is that right?

Matt Cohen

That's absolutely right. So our raison d’etre David is, or our mission is, to increase access to justice by providing opportunities for lawyers to do Pro Bono. And the good news is that historically and into the present lawyers have always wanted to do Pro Bono, but they benefit from an organizer. Lawyers are very busy and when you call them with an attractive pro bono opportunity to harness their talent and their goodwill, to help people who need it, typically they say yes. To also ask them to wake up and build a pro bono program on a busy Tuesday morning, that's a bit unrealistic. So we provide that service of being the Province’s central organizer of pro bono services. We assess the need that's out there, we analyze the response that's required, we build the program, we furnish the program with the right amount of staff and technology to support the volunteers. We recruit the volunteers, we train them, we support them, and of course we give them the thanks they deserve.

Matt Cohen

And so that's exactly right, primarily we are the organizer and facilitator of pro bono services, but because the demand is so high and because we are better organizers when we step into the arena ourselves, we also provide some direct legal services at the staff level.

David Milosevic

How many volunteers does PBO have?

Matt Cohen

It's certainly in the thousands, David. Importantly, they're now coming from all areas of the profession. So practitioners, very small firms, medium sized firms, very large firms and increasingly over the recent years from in-house legal departments. Everyone, all of the lawyers in Ontario have a role to play no matter where they practice, no matter what area they practice in, there is opportunity for them to do pro bono with us.

David Milosevic

And how have you found the availability of pro bono services during the pandemic, given that a lot of lawyers had been working from home?

Matt Cohen

So that really is a two part answer. The first part of it is that pro bono participation has never been higher, so like many organizations, when the pandemic hit in March of 2020, we did the overnight pivot. We said, we're not going to stop helping the public, we know there's going to be an explosion of legal need, and we're going to be there even though we can't operate our in-person court based help centers or in-person courtroom duty counsel programs, we are going to scale up and immediately focus on our free legal advice hotline, which is a service that can be provided on a fully remote basis. So the first part of the answer is that our success in doing that generated historic levels of pro bono participation. So we have more volunteers than we've ever had, our volunteers have taken very well to this shift in the way we provide services, they thoroughly enjoy the ability and opportunity to give free legal advice from wherever is most convenient for them. The hotline is an extremely effective tool at helping people in real time with their needs.

Matt Cohen

The second part of the answer is that we need more lawyers than we've ever needed before. The deluge of legal need has been somewhat overwhelming for Pro Bono Ontario. Our hotline phone rings 200 to 300 times a day from folks who need legal help. So we are in heavy recruitment mode. And so that's really the two parts: wonderful levels of participation, the pandemic has only increased participation, but it has also increased and accelerated demand. So while we have more lawyers than we've ever had, we also need more lawyers than we've ever needed.

David Milosevic

So fair to say for our readers who are reading this edition of the Insider and our interview, you would encourage them to get in touch with Pro Bono Ontario, and offer their services?

Matt Cohen

Without a doubt. Yes, thank you.

David Milosevic

And 200 to 300 calls a day. So on average, before the pandemic, how many clients was Pro Bono Ontario serving per year?

Matt Cohen

So the total numbers are around the same at about 30,000 per year, the difference of course, is that before the pandemic, we had many different venues where we could serve people. So you're extremely familiar of course, with our court based help centers as somebody who came weekly for many years as a volunteer. So in pre pandemic times we were operating three of those court based help centers, very busy places, Superior Court in Toronto, Superior Court and Small Claims Court in Ottawa under one roof, and then Small Claims Court in Toronto. In addition to that, we had numerous in-person duty counsel programs in various courtrooms, various dockets, at different levels of court, from small claims judgment debtor court, small claims motions, court of appeal motions, divisional court motions, superior courts civil practice court. So all of those in-person venues plus the hotline that we were operating pre pandemic, leads to a similar total volume as the volume we're now serving exclusively over the hotline.

Matt Cohen

The difference of course, is that that the demand is way higher. So when we had all of these other outlets and before the world took yet another accelerated shift toward digital services, before the pandemic, the gap between the number of people who were calling the hotline and the number of people who could get through was much smaller. Now, even though the hotline is serving more than triple what it used to serve, the number of people who are calling is so much higher. So we're having a hard time getting to all of them.

David Milosevic

So not everyone is able to get through given the volume?

Matt Cohen

Correct.

David Milosevic

And that leads me to what I wanted to ask you about next Matt, is the changes that you may have observed to Pro Bono Ontario's clientele or the kinds of legal issues since the pandemic hit in March, 2020. Has there been any change in the nature of the clientele or the issues that are being addressed?

Matt Cohen

Well, certainly many of the issues are directly related to the pandemic itself, so right off the top, employment law issues in droves related to the pandemic and the obvious and catastrophic reductions in hours or loss of jobs as a result of the pandemic, housing law issues directly related to the pandemic. I mean, despite the periodic moratoriums on evictions, obviously people had historic and devastating problems with housing. So those would be, in terms of substantive areas of law, the two that really leap out in terms of the pandemic creating new types of legal problems for people. But then it's quick to see how that can spin into difficulties with self-represented litigants. So if suddenly your pandemic related housing problems are landing you in a dispute, then you've got more and more people who are trying to navigate the landlord tenant board or the courts on their own.

Matt Cohen

So all that to say that the pandemic has obviously created a large number of directly related legal problems that we've been on the phone helping with for almost two years.

David Milosevic

And you being on the front line at Pro Bono Ontario, you've seen how the insecurity to people's jobs and housing that resulted from the pandemic has led to this increase in demand by self-represented litigants. Is that fair to say?

Matt Cohen

Absolutely. So even though the specific issues that the pandemic created cluster for us around areas like employment and housing, our busiest hotline option every day, when we open the lines, is still the civil procedure line.

David Milosevic

And hopefully, some of those self-represented litigants have seen the new guide to Ontario civil procedure on CanLII. I'm sure that might help a lot of self-represented litigants.

Matt Cohen

For sure, David. I mean, we've always been of the view and we say this after 20 years in the trenches helping not only self-represented litigants, but folks with a whole range of unmet civil legal needs. We've always observed that these legal information tools are inevitably helpful, but never enough. I'm amazed at the tools that people come up with to ensure that the public has the benefit of well-written plain language and sophisticated material. But at the end of the day, there always has been and in my view always will be a thirst and a need for advice. You've got to be able to give people access to a professional, someone with judgment, wisdom, compassion, to talk them through their specific problem, as a fundamental and essential compliment to whatever informational tools they've been able to find online or otherwise.

David Milosevic

On the issue though, looking at the tools and specifically now this shift in modernization toward online filing, online hearings, remote hearings, how do you think this might help or hurt Pro Bono Ontario's clientele?

Matt Cohen

That's a phenomenally important question, David and I think there's really a two-part answer on that one, the good news and then the critically important challenge. So the good news is that when I think about our clientele, I often think that there is nobody who will benefit more from technology and modernization than folks who are feeling pressures in their lives. If you've got a low amount of income or precarious employment, then technology and modernization can be an enormous gift, both at the level of accessing legal services and at the level of accessing the courthouse. If you're someone who needs to take a coveted shift off work to go see a lawyer for advice, or to attend the courthouse, then it's very easy to see and get very excited about the possibility of having remote legal services, like the hotline, as well as remote hearings within the system to really alleviate a lot of the pressure that would be felt on that person's life.

Matt Cohen

So I think it's magnificent when people who have limited amounts of time and who face those kinds of pressures, especially at work, can access things in a more streamlined and easier way. The other part of the answer, the other side of the coin is that if you're someone who struggles with technology, if you're someone who struggles with learning something new, if you lack the social connectivity that will help you learn those systems, if you feel that the only way that you can effectively receive services or engage with a justice system is by doing so face to face, then for those clients, we need to spend a lot of time worrying about the possibility that they'll be left behind and that they'll be isolated and frankly excluded from our justice system. So tremendous opportunities, tremendous value for precisely the people we're helping. We see it every day, but we cannot forget to effectively serve and provide access to those who will not be ready and capable users of these modern services.

David Milosevic

It sparks a couple of observations for me, Matt, I was speaking in our last addition to Attorney General Downey, and he was telling me that in his view, a few years down the line, he could envision hearings, traffic court, small claims court hearings, being conducted and people could attend by their cell phones. And it would really do something to alleviate pressure, timing, scheduling, and one can do it from one's phone and that would really open up access to justice in ways that we haven't imagined before. It does still leave the problem that you've mentioned of people who are not comfortable with technology, who can't access the system so easily, people have pointed out to me, just the simple concept of, do you have enough data on your phone? But that's where it seems to me that law help centers can become a more complete solution, where someone can come into a center and sit down with help from a staff lawyer and conduct their hearing and have representation with lawyers, remote. And PBO, which now is coordinating a lot of volunteer work, might be the source for coordinating remote hearings for people.

David Milosevic

You mentioned people who have difficulty with technology, what sense do you have of what percentage of people that might be? Is that half of the users of Pro Bono Ontario's cases is it a small percentage?

Matt Cohen

I think it's fairly small. Now, keep in mind this is one of those areas that presents the age old challenge of you don't know what you don't know, so when people call our hotline, they've already identified themselves as people who are comfortable receiving services remotely. So we don't have anything close to perfect information about the folks who don't call us, are they not calling us because they're just not comfortable receiving services in that environment? It's impossible for us to know, but the optimistic part of this discussion is that, we see it on the services side and the hotline is enormously popular, we have seen tremendous public enthusiasm for this remote service. So I tend to think that these sorts of shifts toward remote services and virtual hearings and embracing technology are critical. A key to this, of course, is makng sure the technology is easy for the public to access. We think our hotline is a good example. While it is supported at the back end by state-of-the-art technology that combines communications, case management and document generation on a Salesforce platform, the only thing the public has to do is dial a toll-free number. In other words, it’s a very modern system but it’s super simple for the user.

Matt Cohen

In general, I think most users of the system are going to say, terrific, this is the way the world is moving in most realms and the justice system should not be excluded from what I consider to be, progress in that sense. So I don't think it's a huge percentage, but for the people who can't access something as critical as the justice system, even if the percentage is not huge, it's devastating. The idea that your courthouse or your courtroom, or that a judge would feel inaccessible to you because you have a difficult time accessing technology that's a huge problem when it comes to public trust in the justice system. That’s why we’re so determined to embrace technology in a way that is as easy as possible for the user.

Matt Cohen

But there are limits and some nuances to this as well. For example, pre-pandemic, for our courtroom duty counsel programs, we would dispatch a volunteer lawyer to various different courtrooms each week. We would often arrange it so that they would be an amicus curiae, a friend of the court, who was there to assist the court by making sure that every self-represented litigant on the docket that day got some help and had the ability to put their best foot forward. So, on the one hand, I say, virtual hearings, of course, absolutely terrific. If you could conduct a basic, high volume traffic court or something like that virtually, people just getting on with their lives, patching in with their phones, I mean, I would say, no doubt about it, we have to embrace those sorts of things. But when I look at certain appearances where a self-represented person would clearly benefit from a duty counsel lawyer who is there to give them advice and explain their options and help them put their best foot forward, it's very difficult to replicate that kind of service virtually.

Matt Cohen

And as you will have experienced David as a volunteer for those programs, you will have experienced the magic of the hallway, being able to be in the hallway, shuttling between self-represented litigants, giving them advice outside the courtroom, negotiating settlements, narrowing issues. So are these things impossible on a virtual basis? Certainly not. I mean, there can be fancy Zoom calls with breakout rooms, chat rooms, there's no doubt it's possible, but it does pose a very big challenge to properly replicate that courtroom experience virtually.

David Milosevic

I agree with that, at the end of the day, as I always say to people in the justice system, it's the ultimate social system, it depends on our interaction as human beings, the subtleties and nuance of how we deal with each other, and a lot of that nuance can be lost electronically. And it's important to keep that in mind and have these services available. And at the end of the day, our institutions, our justice institutions, they have to be accessible by all citizens If you can't access justice, you're not a full citizen. And I think it's essential that we do that. You were mentioning public trust in the justice system, and that takes me to asking you just about your more observations of the system, because access to justice goes hand in hand with what you were talking about public trust. And I'm wondering in your position as a director for so long at Pro Bono, Ontario, having seen thousands of clients come through, do you see generally a faith in the justice system's ability to serve the public?

Matt Cohen

David, I see, a lot of faith and I see a lot of shaken faith. I would say if I could try to reconcile those two observations, I would say that when we, as a profession and as a group of justice system stewards erect the right services and programs and systems to give ourselves the opportunity to show the public that the system is fair and that they should have faith in it, then I do think that we succeed. I think that when we sit with somebody, for example, and explain to them that opposing counsel in their case is not a destructive force, but is instead a professional who is acting for a client and takes that seriously and respects them as an adversary and wants to be civil, and is generally civil. When we give ourselves the opportunity to have that kind of discussion, for example, with self-represented members of the public, then it almost always has a positive impact and people feel better.

Matt Cohen

But if we don't, if we don't give ourselves the opportunity to engage with people and explain to them why the system operates in the way it does and why opposing counsel is doing this and why the judge is doing that and why the court staff is doing this and why the master is doing that. If we don't give ourselves the opportunity to compassionately and thoughtfully, explain that to people who are navigating the system without professional help, then they will remain alienated from the system. And they will feel like strangers in a strange land, and that will shake their faith, that they live in a society with a fair justice system that they can have faith in.

David Milosevic

Well, Matt, on that note, and hopefully through the work of Pro Bono Ontario, we can do more to enhance that faith in the justice system. On behalf of the Ontario Bar Association, civil litigation executive, I'd like to thank you for your time today. I'd like to wish Pro Bono Ontario, a very happy 20 year anniversary and a remarkable milestone. And on a personal note, over the years, I've learned a lot observing you at Pro Bono Ontario, on the selfless work that you've done there for a long time. So I'd like to extend my personal thanks to you as well.

Matt Cohen

David, thank you so much. It's mutual. It has been an absolute highlight of my time with Pro Bono Ontario, working with you both as a volunteer and as someone who cares deeply about the broader issues that affect access to justice. So thank you so much, and it's terrific to be back in touch with you during these times.

David Milosevic

Thank you very much, Matt.

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