The Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants is the umbrella organization for immigrant-serving agencies in Ontario. We have more than 200 member agencies working with immigrants and refugees, refugee claimants, migrant workers, international students, and those without full immigration status. We thank the standing committee for the opportunity to comment on this important study.
We'd like to raise four key concerns. First, in our estimation, our immigration and refugee system is complex and unfamiliar to most residents. Clients aren't aware if their applications have been completed correctly or submitted properly. Many rely on word-of-mouth referrals or advertisements in community publications, and at ethno-specific businesses.
Second, lack of language proficiency renders the immigration system inaccessible. Many clients do not speak either official language sufficiently to navigate the system on their own. They rely on others to complete the application, and to understand and respond to communication they receive from the government. Importantly, they are unable to determine if the service they receive from a consultant is legitimate. Clients who speak French, and who approach an English-speaking consultant for services, are not informed of their right to access government services in French.
Third, residents with precarious immigration status are more vulnerable to being taken advantage of by unscrupulous consultants. We are aware of migrant workers who have lost their temporary status when an application for work permit renewal wasn't properly completed or submitted. Clients with limited options to gain legal residence are among the most desperate, and likely to pay thousands of dollars to consultants for false promises of permanent residency. They are less likely to report unfair treatment to the regulatory body, or report fraud to authorities for fear of detention and deportation.
Finally, the regulatory framework is unfamiliar or ineffective. Clients are often not aware of the difference between a regulated and unregulated consultant, paralegal, or lawyer, or what options are available to them in the event of misrepresentation or fraud. They are unfamiliar with the regulatory framework. Some who filed a complaint with Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council, ICCRC, either did not hear back or found the process inadequate.
I'd like to briefly share three examples with you of particular clients who have come from our member agencies.
Client example one. The clients paid a large amount of money to an immigration consultant to prepare an H and C application, and submit it in a timely manner. They didn't hear anything from IRCC about their application. The immigration consultant told them the file had been submitted, and that it would take a long time for IRCC to respond. They finally called IRCC themselves, and were informed that no application had been submitted.
Client example two. A client paid a consultant to prepare an H and C application. The consultant submitted the application in the client's name. The H and C was rejected due to lack of merit. The client later went to a legal clinic for assistance, and learned that there were a number of mistakes in the original application, likely explaining the rejection.
Client example three. Migrant worker clients were told by their employer to use the services of a specific non-registered immigration consultant to have their work visas renewed. Having charged the workers a fee to renew their visas, the consultant did not submit the applications, and their visas lapsed. They were told by the consultant that the employer would be fined because they were working illegally. The workers then had to leave Canada.
On the basis of this, and many other stories and examples, we have three recommendations.
First, in the most general sense, applicants should not be penalized. The submission of an incomplete application usually results in delays for the applicant, sometimes with very serious consequences, such as loss of status. Applicants should not be penalized for errors and misrepresentation by a consultant, but should be permitted to resubmit an application without penalty.
They should be allowed to review and correct mistakes made by consultants. Applicants who have been left without status as a result of mistakes made by consultants should be allowed to remain in Canada without penalty and permitted to submit a corrected application. An extension of a permit should be included if required.
The second recommendation is that more public education is required. There is a need for extensive and ongoing public education about the regulatory framework with respect to consultants, paralegals, and lawyers. This education should be available to all immigrant applicants, refugee claimants, migrant workers, and international students. It should include information on clients' rights and how to find a regulated consultant or legal representative. Information should be broadly available in a variety of formats and in a language understood by the applicant.
The final recommendation is that there should be stronger regulation of immigration consultants. The present system of self-regulation of immigration consultants has not protected newcomers from exploitation. The complaints process has proved ineffective for many. Our recommendation is to enact legislation to create an oversight body within the government to regulate immigration consultants. The legislation should contain detailed provisions for admission and accreditation requirements, a code of standards and rules, the scope of practice, areas of responsibility, insurance coverage, and mechanisms for dealing with complaints and disciplinary matters.
Thank you very much.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak today. My name is Maria Esel Panlaqui, part-time settlement worker at Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office or TNO. TNO is a non-profit charitable organization and multicultural community-based settlement agency in Toronto.
We formally started the TNO caregivers and transition program in 2008. We provide support to live-in caregivers while they are in transition from temporary foreign workers to permanent residents. In addition to in-house services, we also offer alternative settlement service delivery that includes providing alternate services at churches, coffee shops, and apartment buildings. In addition, we offer services over the telephone during the evenings.
As a result of this, we get calls from caregivers in Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatoon, and the Northwest Territories. These are workers who haven't been able to access services where they are located, either because they are not aware of our program and services, or because the services are offered from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and live-in caregivers can only access services on weekends and evenings.
Before getting connected to our organization, many of our clients already have had a bad experience dealing with immigration consultants. They seek the services of immigration consultants when they face challenges with regard to the processing of their PR applications. Challenges include long delays in processing of applications and renewals of open work permits and work permits. Permanent residents are refused also because of administrative errors of IRCC, medical inadmissibility of their family members or dependants, and lack of knowledge about how to apply for humanitarian and compassionate grounds or about how to make applications in Canada as live-in caregivers. Because of their precarious immigration status, these workers are easily taken advantage of by some immigration consultants, whether authorized or not authorized. Most often these workers say they can't discern whether their consultants are authorized or not.
In some instances, even though they don't trust them entirely, they still end up working with them because they don't know where else to get help. Most of our clients claim that they have been manipulated and intimidated by their immigration consultants. Most of these consultants are aware that these workers will not lodge a complaint against them because they know if they do so this will have a negative impact on their immigration application.
In the cases of unauthorized immigration consultants, some live-in caregivers were misled into believing that they were authorized representatives. We have anecdotal reports that some consultants are advertising themselves as being licensed when they are not. Our clients' experiences with unauthorized immigration consultants are worse. Some of these workers were asked to pay high fees up front, and later they found out the immigration applications they needed to file were not even submitted to IRCC. In most cases, these caregivers don't have enough financial resources to make the payments. They borrow money from their friends or get high-interest loans.
Obviously, the long processing of permanent residence applications and their precarious immigration status contribute to their vulnerability. One of the barriers we often see happening on the ground is they have limited access to free legal services from the community legal clinics. Although they are considered employed, they are low-wage earners, and because they are breadwinners and are often sending money back home, they don't have financial resources to get help. Those who are not aware of settlement services, agencies, or non-profit organizations end up dealing with immigration consultants who take advantage of their vulnerability.
Another barrier we see is that some of these workers have been calling us from different provinces in Canada claiming they are having difficulty accessing settlement services, especially those from settlement workers in school. I believe these settlement workers are not mandated by IRCC to assist in filing immigration application forms.
We also hear from our clients that there are many unregistered ghost consultants who conduct business unethically in origin countries like the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. They operate in the shadows and hence are not held accountable.
One of the biggest problems we see is that, while Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council can investigate its own members, it doesn't have the authority to go after non-members. Complaints about unlicensed consultants have to be forwarded to the CBSA, and migrant workers, refugees, and caregivers, the most vulnerable groups targeted by immigration consultants, are intimidated by the CBSA and don't want to file charges when the CBSA is involved.
Some of the other recommendations we would like to present are the following.
We strongly believe that a precarious immigration status is among the major causes of vulnerability of live-in caregivers, refugees, and other temporary workers, and that this allows some immigration consultants and employers to abuse them.
We recommend that the federal government provide landed status to all foreign workers, including live-in caregivers and allow them to enter Canada with their families. Live-in caregivers, refugees, and migrant workers face long periods of separation from their families, and, in many cases, this leads to feelings of anxiety, loneliness, pressures, and stress.
We recommend that the federal government take special measures to address this immigration backlog by allocating resources and addressing inefficiencies of IRCC in processing these applications. IRCC should also give special considerations and not penalize through outright refusal of the applications of these live-in caregivers, refugees, and other foreign workers. The IRCC should not blame and punish the victims but rather ensure that immigration consultants who abuse them are prosecuted.
We would also like to recommend that the IRCC undertake a complete review of the new caregiver program.
It is a great privilege to speak in front of the committee on citizenship and immigration. On behalf of the caregivers, thank you for inviting me.
My experience when I arrived in Canada was very traumatic. It was April 10, 2014, when I arrived at Pearson International Airport. I trusted an immigration agent and paid about $4,500 and $900 airfare to sort out all the paperwork for employment as a live-in caregiver. The immigration agent was not very welcoming to start with, when she picked me up at the airport. She told me that my employer was not ready to have me yet, so she took me to her house instead, and then we went to the supposed employer and put my luggage there. She then said that we had to go out and open a bank account, which we did, and she put her home address on the account and a mobile SIM card. On the way back, she told me we needed to get my things back, as she said I didn't belong there and that there were other nice families I could work with. She also asked if I had friends and relatives here in Toronto, and I said no.
I was confused at that time, but still I did not react against her will as she was the only person I knew at that time. To my surprise, when we arrived at my employer's house, my things were all packed up and ready to be collected outside the house. The immigration agent brought my entire luggage to her garage, dropped me off at Yorkdale mall, and never came back. She said she was going to speak to my employer and would let me know what was going to happen next, but never showed up.
I was shocked and felt so humiliated, but did not complain because I was so scared. I cried day and night. I couldn't believe I had been scammed. To me, it was a big amount of money because I have a son to look after financially. A good Filipino stranger helped me to go through the process of looking for another job all over again, and it took me about eight months to get a work permit done.
The reason I am here right now is that I want to show you that my case is evidence that there are fake immigration agents who are engaging in unethical business practices. This immigration consultant is still acting as an immigration agent and bringing nannies to Canada from all over the world. I just met someone from the church who arrived in January 2017 and who was brought to Canada through this person. She, too, needs help emotionally and financially.
Thank you for having me.
Thank you, Michelle, Maria, and Leslie for coming. It's a pretty difficult situation. It's heartbreaking.
We keep hearing this story. I've been hearing it for the last 30-some years. These crooked consultants, whatever you want to call them, always find some victims just like you and many others.
My first call today was from somebody who called from some other country with a similar situation. They took big bucks and would not answer the phone. A couple of weeks back I got a call from the west.
What is the solution? What do you think can be done? Do you have any ideas? We are looking for solutions here. They should be all blacklisted. Should there be some sort of registry where people can call in?
The two people who called me in the last two weeks will not file a complaint. I gave them the number. I gave them every single thing. I made it clear. I said, “We will protect you. Whatever we can do.” They are not doing it. What is the solution?
Maybe we can start with you, Leslie. What do you think?
Even the registered consultants are very smart. They know how to get away with it.
For example, some of our clients went to a registered consultant who says that all their emails from IRCC are going to her spam. She won't tell them whether they need to submit some more documents. We found out, when I started going to the church, that a lot of the applications are now closed.
This consultant says, “I'm sorry. I didn't intend to neglect your application. It went to my spam. I did not see it. We need to send an explanation letter to IRCC, but you need to pay me another $300 to do that.”
Then, when the cases start to become complicated, our clients are referred to lawyers, and they need to pay money again.
I think it's the condition of these people's status. If you really want to address the problem, make them permanent residents when they come here. It's the condition of their status that even if they don't like to go with these people, because they are not even sure whether they are legitimate or not, they are forced to do so because of that precariousness.
My goal or my thought is that if an example is set, there will be fewer people, or people will be hesitant to commit such an action. They will fear more than just being sanctioned by a society.
As to your other suggestion, that they get PRs on arrival, the concern I would have is this. If you have fraudulent or ghost consultants filling in applications and pairing people up, then really we don't know if the people who are coming are actually live-in caregivers. Are they coming for that purpose or are they paired up with a family here? Is the labour market opinion genuine or not genuine? If we automatically give permanent residence to people who might not be genuine, then we face that risk and have to deal with that.
The point is to correct the system. Automatically granting it might actually fuel a lot more fraud, because now they can charge a lot more. They can stay in the other country and say, “As soon as you arrive, you'll get permanent residence. You don't have to worry about your job or your employer. You can bring your children. You're safe.” Now you'll have a whole new industry work its way backwards on creating fraudulent documents to get you in the door until we find out it has no relevance. I think there are challenges with that.
What would you say should be changed for ICCRC so that they could sanction unregistered consultants in the same manner as, say, law societies deal with unlicensed individuals practising law, or the dental society deals with an unlicenced dentist, or doctors in the case of surgeons? Do you think they need that type of tool so that they can sanction them more heavily? For example, I think there was a recent arrest of a dentist who was practising. It might even have been in British Columbia, my home province, where they found him. The penalties are huge and there's a large hindrance.
Is that the answer, Ms. Emory?
Thanks to all three of you for your testimony.
In another life, I used to practise law, and for my sins, I sat on the paralegal committee. At that time we were wrestling with whether to admit paralegals to the law society in a forum, and ultimately that's what happened. Of course, once we brought them into the administration of the law society, we actually had serious regulation, and the Law Society Act was amended to bring those paralegals into that regulatory regime.
As far as I know, it's working well. Mr. Sarai anticipated my line of questioning. What I don't understand is that in the context of somebody practising law, either as a lawyer or as a paralegal, if they are not licensed, they are prosecuted. The law society, particularly with lawyers, is pretty vigorous about that, and I'm assuming that, with respect to paralegals, it's also pretty vigorous about that, so why is this vast mass of people not falling under that regime?
I apologize that I'm a bit out of date, but nevertheless, it strikes me as such an obvious area of prosecution.
Immigration applicants are among the most vulnerable consumers of immigration services. Their first language might not be English or French, and they often lack familiarity with the complexities of Canada’s immigration and legal systems. As a result, they might not be in a position to assess the legitimacy of the advice they receive or the accuracy of the information provided in their application.
For over 20 years, the CBA has said immigration law should be restricted to lawyers or, alternatively, consultants if they’re effectively regulated. We’ve seen the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants and ICCRC try to regulate consultants, but incompetent and ghost consultants have proliferated and a strong remedy is needed. In the interests of protecting the public, we are now saying that immigration law is a field that should be restricted to lawyers.
It has been reported that ICCRC faces the same problems as CSIC: mismanagement and governance issues, lack of transparency, high directors' fees, and ineffective discipline. There appears to be a division on the board, and as the chair of the Canadian Migration Institute indicated here, feedback from many members is that the complaints department is weak.
In 2010, there were 1,600 CSIC members; now there are over 3,600 ICCRC members. In December 2016, ICCRC reported that an astonishing 1,710 complaints had been made against registered consultants in its five-year existence. In five years, that's almost two complaints for every two members, and misconduct by consultants is likely under-reported due to, as we heard, the vulnerability and lack of sophistication of the clients.
The director of the Toronto legal clinic testified here that most of the complaints at her clinic are about consultants. In striking contrast, case law research reveals for the first time that in the same five-year period there were only 23 reported disciplinary actions against immigration lawyers across Canada. In B.C., there were 1,537 immigration lawyers in 2015, but no reported cases since 2011, during ICCRC's existence. In Ontario, we get a 50% base premium discount because of the low number of claims against immigration lawyers.
Unmeritorious cases waste government, tribunal, and court time and tax dollars. We've seen consultants advise against disclosing family members, applying to restore work permits beyond the 90-day limitation period, fabricating refugee narratives, and missing important details such as common-law relationships. Who suffers? It's buyer beware; we all know this. Therefore, it's prospective immigrants who suffer, even if they thought they had hired a lawyer.
In 2015, Green Party leader, Elizabeth May, said:
||I’m deeply concerned about the quality of advice...from immigration consultants...in my work as an MP...quite often I find that the advice given by immigration consultants has made their situations worse.
Why should immigration law be restricted to lawyers? First, the legal profession has established self-regulation in the public interest for 200 years, since 1797. There's a legislative responsibility to investigate each and every complaint so that clients can have true recourse if things go wrong. Immigration law is a complicated, technical area that changes frequently. It intersects with human rights, international, criminal, family, employment, corporate and tax law. You have to keep up to date with legislation, regulations, policy, and operational bulletins, as well as processing trends at visa offices, inland processing centres, and ports of entry.
Immigration lawyers are held to high education and training standards and must graduate from law school, a three-year university program with high admission standards, where skills such as legal research and writing, as well as advocacy skills, are learned. Lawyers apply their education and experience to provide valuable insight into a client's case, which can save applicants both time and money.
The importance of that training was highlighted recently by Paul Aterman, the deputy chair of the immigration appeal division of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada in his testimony before you. He said:
||Certainly when it comes to the question of litigation, there is considerable scope for improvement when it comes to immigration consultants acting as litigators.
Other countries, such as the United States, protect the public by prohibiting consultants and paralegals. If you're not a lawyer, they call it the unauthorized practise of law and they prosecute. If only lawyers can represent for a fee, there will be less confusion about who's allowed to assist clients with immigration matters. It's about ghosts.
What about accessibility and lawyers' fees? Canada's immigration lawyers are more accessible than ever. There are thousands of immigration lawyers, with ample cultural and linguistic diversity. Lawyers can also provide immigration clients with cost-effective services, often at rates lower than those charged by consultants. For example, it was reported that consultants have been asking graduating students to pay $15,000 to $20,000 to arrange job offers. Lawyers often help clients save money by providing consultations advising not to appeal, not to refile, and law societies can always assess the reasonableness of lawyers' fees.
To promote access to justice, law societies offer public services such as referral services, and lawyers provide pro bono services in times of need. CBA sections sponsor pro bono projects after natural disasters and political upheaval. Recently, we volunteered at various airports across Canada following the U.S. executive orders barring certain foreign nationals and ceasing refugee admissions to the United States.
Why restrict paralegals to do IRB work in Ontario? While they are effectively regulated, the education training centres are not at all adequate, and they aren't getting substantive immigration law training through the law society. They only get it through ICCRC through a streamlined process of becoming consultants. However, ICCRC education training is deficient.
We are aware that MPs are often overwhelmed with questions about immigration. If only lawyers practised immigration law, MPs wouldn't have complaints that applications weren't filed, money-back guarantees weren't honoured, or scams were suggested to the people who are in charge of government fees. MPs should refer cases through law societies that have online referral services and certified specialists lists. The immigration department should make existing local immigration processing centres in key cities accessible to lawyers, such as walk-in counters.
Immigration law is an area where incompetent representation can have dire consequences for the lives of applicants and their families, and the measures taken to regulate representation advice for consideration through IRPR are not working. That's why, to protect the public, immigration law should be restricted to lawyers.
Thank you, Mr. Chair, and esteemed members of the committee for inviting me here today.
I followed the committee's proceedings on March 6 and 8 with great interest, and was delighted to hear the testimony this morning. It all comes down to the same thing, particularly the experiences and complaints members of the committee relay from constituents and members of the public about immigration advice they had received.
To put my testimony in context, I've been an immigration consultant since the beginning of 1988, having started with a law firm. I have served on boards of immigration consulting associations since 1992. That includes almost eight years in total as an elected director at both regulatory bodies, as a vice-chair of CSIC, the first body, and as a chair of ICCRC for two years.
I'm familiar, therefore, with the subject. I was a co-founder of the prototype immigration practitioner certificate program, quite a high standard, and that remains the entry requirement for the profession today. Since 2011, I have held the designation of chartered director.
Therefore, the subject you are deliberating on today is very near and dear to me, having built the profession from almost the very start on principles of ethical practice, and provisions of professional services to the needy, who are real people. It is a serious undertaking when people trust you with their and their family's aspirations and dreams, and are willing to pay a fee for good counsel.
Listening to the testimony on March 6, March 8, and this morning, it struck and gratified me that most of it was not dealing with regulated immigration consultants, RCICs, who were the targets of complaints relayed to members of this committee, but rather unlicensed immigration advisers, commonly referred to as ghost agents. This tells me that ICCRC has been largely successful in both elucidating standards of ethical and professional immigration consulting, and holding its members to those standards.
It is certainly true that high-profile cases of immigration fraud, such as the notorious Nova Scotia case of Hassan Al-Awaid who is facing 53 counts under IRPA, are perpetrated not by members of ICCRC but by those who are not licensed to give immigration advice.
In terms of effectively dealing with the problem of unlicensed representatives, this committee heard, on March 8, that CBSA was responsible for taking action against unlicensed consultants and executed its mandate, to a spectacular effect, in prosecutions initiated against Sunny Wang in B.C. and his employees and clients, and against Codina International in Ontario, to just give a couple of examples. They neither have resources nor the inclination to follow up on small-scale immigration fraudsters who are nonetheless more than capable of destroying the lives of their clients.
Most complaints received at ICCRC involve relatively minor disputes over payments and timeliness of service, rather than fraud and abuse of public trust. Also, while ICCRC's complaint and discipline process could be improved by shortening timelines, it is apparent to me that RCICs are not the real problem in the immigration system.
If the real consumer protection issue in immigration consulting is the conduct of unlicensed and unauthorized consultants, the solution lies in taking effective measures against them. ICCRC, as currently constituted, is limited to enforcement actions against its members only. The solution, then, appears to lie in giving ICCRC the regulatory authority to pursue, and take action against, those who are not its members.
If ICCRC were mandated by federal statute to regulate the entire immigration consulting industry in the same way as doctors, dentists, lawyers, and accountants regulate their respective professions, it would be able to hurt the people who actually cause harm to your constituents, the Canadian public, and the integrity of the Canadian immigration system.
I have brought sufficient copies for everyone to read the comments I am about to make. This is supporting documentation. Regulation by federal statutes is not a new idea.
Recommendation two of the report of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration on regulating immigration consultants of 2008, to which I contributed, clearly proposes independent self-regulation under federal statute. Letters produced during the consultative process leading to Bill in 2010, from the Law Society of Upper Canada, the Canadian Bar Association, and the Government of Manitoba all support the position that the body should have full regulatory powers. The letter from Manitoba goes on to support the notion that a strong federal regulator of immigration consultants would help bring clarity to jurisdictional issues and promote alignment between the province and the federal immigration regulation.
Once immigration consultants are self-regulated under federal statute, the possibility arises for negotiating agreements with some foreign governments where an equivalent code will most likely exist, thus taking the fight beyond our borders to places where immigration consultants operate with impunity.
All of that said, the fight to protect Canadians, Canadian permanent residents, and foreign nationals who aspire to live, work, or study in Canada, from those who would defraud them by taking advantage of their hopes and aspirations cannot be successfully done by the regulator alone. A concerted effort, encompassing everything from IRCC refusing to accept applications from those who are advised or represented by unlicensed advisers, to increased information sharing among CBSA, ICCRC, and the RCMP, would be an excellent start. However, the effort would be even more effective if the ICCRC had the authority to take action against not only its members, but also the fraudsters who compromise everyone's confidence in this vital facet of Canadian life.
I will close by saying that I do not believe that we can completely eradicate the activities of those who prey on the vulnerable and promote fraud and misrepresentation, but we can certainly put a dent in such activities by making an example of a few.
Thank you very much for having me here today.
I am an immigration lawyer at a community legal aid clinic in Toronto called Neighbourhood Legal Services, but I am here today on behalf of the Inter Clinic Immigration Working Group, which is a network of lawyers and paralegals in Ontario community legal clinics and student legal aid service societies. Clinics are funded by Legal Aid Ontario to provide services to low-income individuals and disadvantaged communities.
We service clients in a variety of ways, including summary legal advice, representation, public legal education, and law reform activities. Of the 76 funded clinics in Ontario, approximately 30 belong to ICIWG, so we are very aware, in Ontario, of a couple of perspectives: one is that access to legal aid is somewhat of a patchwork and a privilege not afforded to everyone, depending on where you reside; and the other is that, in the clinics that do provide immigration services, we are quite overwhelmed by the demand.
We are very pleased that the standing committee is studying the important issue of the legal, regulatory, and disciplinary frameworks governing and overseeing immigration paralegals and consultants in Canada. I'd like to make three main points, and then I'll move on to our recommendations.
First, we want to highlight for the committee how we are impacted by the chill placed on newcomer-serving NGOs by the very harsh penalties they potentially face should they contravene the law of authorized representatives. I am speaking particularly about section 91 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and section 21.1 of the Citizenship Act, which would provide very serious consequences for anyone who is not authorized, i.e., a member of a regulatory body like a law society or the ICCRC. The penalties include a fine of up to $100,000 and/or two years' imprisonment.
Our position is that in Bill —this “cracking down on crooked consultants act”, the attempt to catch the bad guys in all these stories you are hearing from various witnesses—those provisions have overreached. That is because they provide that anyone who provides services for consideration is captured by these provisions. Since these provisions came into effect in 2011, “for consideration” has been varyingly interpreted by the department.
At first, our newcomer-serving NGO partners were assured that these provisions would not apply to them, because they offer their services for free, in good faith, to the vulnerable communities we mutually serve. That changed a few years ago with some emails that some of the settlement sector partners we work with received from their IRCC representatives, advising them that in fact they were afoul of section 91 of IRPA because “for consideration” was interpreted to include salaries that they received at their non-profit organizations.
More recently, in January 2017, there was an attempt to bring some clarity, but it still appears that it may be only international organizations with service agreements with the federal government, like UNHCR and IOM, that are, in fact, exempt from these provisions.
My second point is to highlight for the committee the reality we experience on the ground, providing immigration services in our communities to low-income clients who cannot afford to pay anyone for their complex legal needs. We note that underfunding of legal aid immigration services in Ontario and across the country puts a big strain on newcomer-serving NGOs. Those NGOs play a key role in the continuum of immigration services for low-income newcomers.
When there was somewhat of a chill placed on our NGO partners as a result of these directives coming down a few years ago, a lot of that work came back into the clinics, and we could not possibly meet the demand. We really cannot meet the demand as it is. When settlement agencies aren't sure if they can provide any information beyond basic form-filling, you create a situation where people really don't know where to turn and, in our respectful submission, you create a situation that leads to people being preyed upon.
Our third main point is to highlight our observation that it is newcomers themselves who face the harshest penalties of all—loss of status, inability to reunite with family, deportation—when a representative, authorized or not, makes a mistake. We believe that, when there is a doubt, it is the newcomer who ought to be given the benefit of that doubt.
We sympathize with the department in aiming to strike a balance to protect vulnerable newcomers from unscrupulous practitioners who exploit the gaps in services. However, the current law and policy framework continue to assume that the vulnerable newcomers living in poverty will simply be able to pay a consultant, paralegal, or lawyer to help them when a complicated legal issue arises. This is blind to the access-to-justice reality for newcomers, and continues to expose newcomer-serving agencies, which operate without a profit motive and in good faith in the service of newcomers, to the overly harsh penalties set out in the law.
We urge the committee to recommend a more common-sense approach that is allied to the financial reality of newcomers in the context of a lack of adequate publicly funded legal services like legal aid clinics. Newcomer-serving NGOs may not always have the legal know-how to get it right, but we believe they operate in good faith and are a bedrock of the operation of Canada's immigration system. The better solution, in our view, would be stabilized long-term funding for that sector, enhancing their professional development opportunities, and ensuring that legal aid funding is adequate to meet the needs on the ground.
We believe that the current atmosphere of fear puts low-income newcomers, desperate for a solution to their problems, into the arms of unscrupulous practitioners, as I've said, borrowing money they often do not have for the service.
We have three sort of flexible, common-sense recommendations for the committee.
We don't come to this position lightly at the Canadian Bar Association. It's been over 20 years that we've been comfortable with the idea of giving it a shot with respect to the regulatory bodies for consultants, right?
We've had two chances now. We've had two regulatory bodies that have failed. Seventeen hundred and ten complaints for 3,600 members over five years is a lot.
Lawyers swear an oath to protect the public. You're coming to see a professional. You're coming to see someone who has to have your interests at heart. There are times in a consultation of a few hundred dollars when you can save someone tens of thousands of dollars in heartache related to going to a consultant or trying all these different avenues.
Someone comes in, says, “I haven't been living in the country, but I want to set up a Canadian corporation so that I can meet my residency obligations”, and asks if that is going to work. No, it's not.
Someone says, “I want to appeal because my dad has renal failure, so I want to go to the IAD and I want to pay you $6,000 for an appeal.” No. I'm sorry. It's not going to work. You've looked at the case log, you say. It's not going to be a successful case.
A lawyer will save you that kind of hardship. Lawyers see this day in, day out in their practices. The reality is that when a lawyer is supervising—and it could be junior lawyers they're supervising, or consultants, or people with immigration training, whether they are consultants, paralegals, or whatever —the lawyer has the responsibility. The lawyer has a lot to lose: four years of a B.A., three years of law school, and a year of articling. That's a lot on the line for a $400 work permit application. You have to be sure that what's going in.... You have an obligation. The law society says you have an obligation to supervise everyone under you.
If you want to protect the public, that's how to protect the public. There's no evidence that we have to be worried about lawyers' fees. There's no evidence that lawyers are doing this after 20 years because they want to make more money.