04/24/2015 05:05 EDT | Updated 07/22/2015 02:59 EDT

Ontario Legal Aid toughens rules after lawyers failed Roma clients

Legal Aid Ontario is tightening its rules for lawyers who take on refugee cases following a scathing report that showed thousands of Hungarian Roma were left high and dry by lawyers who made hundreds of thousands of dollars off them.

Andrew Brouwer, senior legal counsel with Immigration and Refugee Law at Legal Aid Ontario, said starting this summer, lawyers who want to handle legal aid refugee cases will have to apply to be authorized to handle those kinds of cases, pass a competency test and meet certain standards and best practices.

Brouwer said those practices include meeting clients upon being retained, spending sufficient time preparing them for their hearings and making sure they have the opportunity to tell their whole story.

It also means using translators, properly translating documents and filing evidence to the Immigration and Refugee Board tribunal on time.

"Those are considered basic requirements in order to be a good lawyer, but unfortunately, some have fallen short of those requirements and we've seen the impact of that," Brouwer said.

"We are going to be vetting every single refugee lawyer in Ontario to ensure they meet the standards and if they don't, they may not be permitted to continue or they will be put on some sort of conditions until they can demonstrate they meet the standards," he said.

As well, there will be ongoing monitoring and auditing of all lawyers who handle refugee cases. The bar will be set even higher and there will be a separate category for lawyers who want to handle appeals in refugee cases.

Many complaints went unanswered

Jennifer Danch, vice-president of the Roma Community Centre (RCC) in Toronto, says she's "thrilled" that Legal Aid is taking action but takes issue with the delay. 

"We just wish these changes had come faster and that they had come with more collaboration with the community groups that serve refugees," she said.

Danch said the RCC met with Legal Aid four years ago and filed more than a dozen complaints about inadequate and negligent representation of Roma refugee claimants. But she said Legal Aid never responded.

Since then, almost all the Roma affected have been deported.

Complaints were also filed with the Law Society of Upper Canada, the regulatory body for lawyers in Ontario. Danch said it took more than three years for them to answer these complaints.

"This is a story of the legal institutions in Canada standing by while Roma refugee claimants were taken advantage of and negligently represented," she said.

The Law Society, which sees its role as protecting the public, refused to discuss its complaints process or why it took years to investigate. It also refused to say whether it plans to make changes, given that almost all the complainants were deported before being able to testify in disciplinary hearings.

One lawyer, Viktor Hohots, has already admitted to professional misconduct in handling Roma claims and will be sentenced next month. Two others, Joseph Farkas and Erszebet Jaszi, are facing disciplinary hearings in the coming weeks.

Low success rate

Sean Rehaag, a law professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, spent three years combining through refugee statistics and conducting intensive interviews.

His report, No Refuge: Hungarian Romani Refugee Claimants in Canada, examined more than 11,000 refugee claimants in Canada between 2008 and 2012. It shows that only 8.6 per cent of those claims were successful while more than half were abandoned or withdrawn — often because of poor legal representation.

The reports cites "institutional bias" on the part of government and the legal community.

"In short, between 2008 and 2012, most Hungarian Roma refugee claimants found no refuge from the mistreatment they experience in Hungary," the report said.

Danch says that in light of this conclusion, she wants the refugee claimants whose cases were bungled to be allowed to return to Canada and have their applications reopened.

But the federal government continues to insist many Roma claimants from Hungary are "bogus" refugees and are only coming to Canada to take advantage of the welfare system.

Canada's Immigration Minister, Chris Alexander, has insisted that the decisions made by refugee board members in the Roma cases are fair.

"The decisions were made by highly trained civil servants who follow our Immigration laws," he told the House of Commons earlier this month. "Our just and immigration rules are applied impartially and based on the facts."