Need a lawyer? If you’re at Jane and Finch, you may be out of luck
By Melissa Wilson
February 6, 2012
Most Torontonians don’t give much thought to where they might find a lawyer should they ever need one. Unless your Rockefeller-esque family has a Bay Street attorney on retainer, finding a good, affordable lawyer can be a chore, sometimes a seemingly impossible one. But some neighbourhoods in the city have it worse than others.
Of more than a hundred neighbourhoods in Toronto, there is only one that has absolutely no lawyers working within its boundaries, a veritable Bermuda Triangle of access to justice: Jane and Finch.
Toronto divides into just over 100 three-digit postal code prefixes. Generally speaking, these three-digit postal codes represent neighbourhoods. The postal code for the Jane and Finch neighbourhood is M3N, which runs from Highway 400 to the west, Steeles Avenue to the north, Black Creek River to the east and Sheppard Avenue to the south.
According to Wanda MacNevin, director of community programs at the Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre, the reason for the dearth of lawyers in the area comes from the fact that the neighbourhood itself was poorly planned when it was developed in the 1960s. “It was planned to be a middle class community, but because there was a lot of vacant land, they ended up putting in social housing,” says MacNevin. “It was built quickly without thought to the impact it would have as the years followed. There weren’t any of the necessary services. All of the services here now, like this community centre, have been a result of residents working hard to get them up here.”
Residents of the area face the same legal issues other Torontoians face, such as wills and estates, divorce, custody, small claims and real estate — “Yes,” says MacNevin, “People do buy homes here.” — but as one of Toronto’s most vulnerable neighbourhoods, they do face some unique issues, such as those related to immigration (getting documents prepared), employment (not being paid a fair wage) and navigating the bureaucracy surrounding the school system.
While there are no lawyers within the boundaries of Jane and Finch, there are some just outside making a point to work within the community, including Roger Rowe, who has lived in the Jane and Finch area for more than 30 years.
Rowe specializes in immigration, family and criminal law, and works closely with the community. Once every other week, he goes to the Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre to meet with individuals in need of legal advice.
Though Rowe could set up his legal practice anywhere, he has no plans to leave Jane and Finch. “I love the community,” he says. “Also, in a large way, I identify with the residents. I think they’ve been given an unfair rap and a lot of politicians have given nothing more than lip services to address these issues.”
Beyond that, Rowe recognizes the need for Jane and Finch residents to have access to not just a lawyer (Toronto is full of lawyers), but to a lawyer who understands the needs of the community.
He cited the recent case of Diane Anderson, a single mother who died, along with two of her five children, in a fire in her Toronto Community Housing apartment. An inquest was held regarding the incident, as she’d been involved with several aid agencies at the time of her death. “The role of the lawyers of these institutions was to deflect blame,” says Rowe, who represented Anderson’s family. “So this was an instance where the family really had to have counsel that understood the issues unique to the community.”
Rowe describes Anderson as someone who “fell through the cracks,” and didn’t get the help she needed, so he wanted to make sure her surviving children were represented fairly in the inquest. “The welfare office had declared her apartment too unsafe to make visits to, and yet here she is, this ongoing client, and it was their job to help her.”
Residents of Jane and Finch can make their way to nearby legal clinics, but there are additional barriers, such as transportation and eligibility for legal aid. There’s also what Lynn Burns, executive director of Pro Bono Law Ontario, calls a “culture of not speaking up.”
In response to hearing from community leaders about how people would witness a crime and want to talk to someone about their rights if they were to come forward, PBLO launched a project called the Witness Advice Hotline. “We wanted to assist people, give them a credible source to anonymously find out what would happen if they came forward,” says Burns.
But the project never took off. No one seemed interested in even talking about coming forward as a witness, says Burns, and the project folded after two years.
A harder reality is that hiring a lawyer requires money, something many of the residents of the area don’t have in abundance. If they don’t qualify for legal aid, they are likely out of luck. “Part of the issue is access,” says MacNevin, “but the main problem is the money.”
Rowe agrees. “The law,” he says, “does not work the same way for poor people as it does for rich people.”