By Karlene Nation
TORONTO, Ontario, September 25, 2017 — Margaret Parsons, the Executive Director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic (ACLC) has enlisted legal help to challenge Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) for shutting off funding, accusing LAO of racism and anti-Black racism.
Parsons and the ACLC has retained litigation lawyer, Scott Hutchison, of Henein and Hutchison, to challenge the defunding decision by LAO, which is being represented by human rights lawyer, Julian Falconer, of Falconers LLP.
The LAO says it made the decision to cease the organisation’s funding — effective September 30 — after a Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC) forensic audit that it ordered, found persistent instances of financial mismanagement at the ACLC.
The decision follows 23 years of bitter fighting and mudslinging between the two organizations, with LAO saying it was concerned with the clinic’s ability to manage its finances, and the ACLC accusing LAO of putting greater scrutiny on ACLC than any other legal aid clinic in Ontario.
LAO provides funding to 76 legal clinics in Ontario.
Parsons and the ACLC has filed four separate legal actions against LAO over the years, including: a 2002 lawsuit, which was withdrawn by the ACLC; a 2003 Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario complaint that was settled by LAO and the ACLC; a 2010 lawsuit that was dismissed; and a 2012 Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario complaint, which is still pending.
Falconer said these legal actions were “vexatious” and an attempt to shield Parsons and the ACLC from accountability in how it was spending legal aid funds.
“These legal actions, by Parsons and the ACLC, used up valuable funds that should have been used to help vulnerable people in the Black community,” added Falconer.
Parsons has, repeatedly, over the years, accused Legal Aid Ontario of racism and anti-Black racism.
She declined our request for an interview, but did a lengthy interview on the G98.7 FM show, Grapevine, earlier this month.
She claims that LAO — which has no people of colour on its board — did not support the establishment of a Black legal clinic.
“We stood up to them. I stood up to them and mobilized the community. It was, as a result of that, that the clinic was set up. We’ve had a target on our back ever since,” the ACLC Executive Director said. “That target got bigger, as a result of the issues we took on.”
Parsons says the ACLC took on issues such as immigration profiling, the high rate of suspension and expulsion of Black children, the over-representation of Black kids in the child welfare system, carding, police brutality and called for SIU investigations of police shooting of Black people.
“We have been very vocal and challenging public institutions, at all levels of government, on the treatment of African Canadians. This has not ingratiated us with Legal Aid Ontario,” she noted.
Falconer, one of Canada’s top human rights lawyers, said racism and anti-black racism have absolutely nothing to do with the ACLC losing its funding.
He argues it’s about transparency, accountability and fiscal mismanagement.
“I don’t see how Legal Aid Ontario could ignore a Price Waterhouse Cooper forensic audit, where the Executive Director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic used the company credit card to purchase (among other things) lingerie and jewellery,” said Falconer.
“The audit also showed that Ms. Parsons spent 39-thousand dollars on cab fares, gave herself 120-thousand dollars in bonuses (over four years) and claimed $150-thousand in compensatory time, that’s well in excess of the maximum hours permitted under the ACLC’s personnel policy,” revealed Falconer. “It’s about meeting the needs of vulnerable people in the Black community. The community expects and deserves a legal clinic that is operated in a fiscally sound and responsible manner.”
Falconer encourages everyone to go to LAO’s website for details on the audit.
Price Waterhouse Cooper’s 2013 report found:
- $2,281 credit card charges at various retail stores, including Stillwater Spa, La Senza, William Ashley, and Lava Life dating service.
- $754 for a ring, from the Diamond Shop, purchased by the executive director.
- $6,650 in unexplained cash advances, using the ACLC credit card.
- $39,007 spent on taxis, in and around GTA, an average of $38 per day. PwC found that taxis were frequently used to travel between ACLC and employees’ homes, including to and from work during the day. In PwC’s opinion, the taxi expenditures appeared high, given the size of ACLC and relatively small number of staff.
- $170,000 in lump sum bonuses to staff, $121,000 of which went to ACLC’s executive director. PwC reviewed ACLC board minutes and did not find approval for the bonuses. There was also no corresponding reduction for this lump sum in the time claimed by the executive director, as is the practice for recording overtime payments. To pay these bonuses, ACLC used money that was meant for lawyer staff positions, which they kept vacant for many years.
- $155,107 in compensatory time claimed to be owed to staff, $150,513 of which was recorded as owing to ACLC’s executive director. The compensation accrual was in excess of the maximum of 168 hours permitted under ACLC’s personnel policy. This created a large liability and deficit. Furthermore, PwC reviewed ACLC’s board minutes and did not find approval for the compensatory time.
The one issue that stood out was the purchase of the $754.00 diamond ring, purchased by Parsons with the ACLC’s credit card. Parsons told auditors, that she withdrew cash on the same day, and gave the money for the ring to ACLC’s Office Manager, but “forgot to ask for a receipt”.
Price Waterhouse Cooper found no evidence to substantiate her claim that she repaid the ACLC for the ring. Parson’s later produced a receipt, but refused to reveal her bank account to show when funds were withdrawn to make the repayment.
In addition, LAO accused ACLC of failing to come up with a sound financial plan to deal with a large deficit, and called on the ACLC to stop using legal aid funds to pay for debts unrelated to it’s operations.
In a statement on the ACLC’s website, Parsons said “it is important to emphasize that in the interest of transparency and accountability, the ACLC’s Board of Directors requested LAO conduct the forensic audit. At the end of the forensic audit, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) reported no findings of embezzlement, fraud or misappropriation of funds.”
Parson’s is calling on the Ontario government to investigate “the biased, unjust and racist decision to defund the ACLC”.
LAO has set up a Black Advisory Committee to establish guidelines for a new Black legal clinic that will replace the (ACLC. Members of this committee include Zanana Akande, Roger Rowe, Sandy Hudson, Rinadlo Walcott, Idil Abdillahi and Aba Stevens.
LAO says their priority, right now, is to have the new clinic open and providing service as soon as possible within the next twelve months.
In the meantime, LAO has created an interim plan, which provides for legal services to the black community through the private bar, legal aid certificates, test case funding, and the Human Rights Legal Support Center.
“Every dollar of funding currently provided to the ACLC, will be redirected to a new organization to provide dedicated services to the Black community,” said David Field, President and CEO of Legal Aid Ontario.
On Wednesday, September 27, LAO will be holding an information session, at the Toronto Reference Library, to discuss the establishment of the new legal clinic for the Black community.
This information session will address concerns, within the community, about how this new legal clinic will be structured: who will operate it? Who will be on the board? How much funding will it receive? How will this new legal clinic be accountable to the Black community, and will the community have a say in how this new clinic is operated?
Karlene Nation is a media specialist with OneNationPR Inc. and a former reporter and producer with CTV News in Toronto.