Collection confusion

Ministry of the Attorney General (Legal Aid Ontario)

Date: 2011

A single mother with two daughters used Legal Aid for two family law matters in 2006. She had originally agreed to pay more than $6,000 in monthly installments, but stopped paying Legal Aid because she fired her lawyer and represented herself in court. In January 2010, when seeking financing for a new car, she was surprised to learn that Legal Aid had referred her case to a collection agency. She complained to the Ombudsman that Legal Aid had not brought this debt to her attention, and that she did not believe she owed the full $6,000. She did not know how she would be able to pay the outstanding debt, and she feared that the involvement of the collection agency could jeopardize her job in the financial sector, where she was required to pass a credit check.

Ombudsman staff reviewed Legal Aid’s records and discovered the collection notices had been sent to an incorrect address. The records showed Legal Aid staff had agreed to contact the woman to discuss their concerns about the amount owed, but it was not clear this was done before the file was sent to the collection agency. As a result of the Ombudsman’s review, a Legal Aid official met with the woman and agreed to reassess her financial circumstances dating back several years. The reassessment determined she was actually eligible for free legal assistance dating from when she regained custody of one of her daughters. Legal Aid reduced the amount it was owed to $580 and agreed to waive interest on this amount.