A Qualitative Look at Serious Legal Problems Facing Immigrants in London and Toronto, Ontario


The goal of this study was to learn more about recent immigrants’ experiences with serious legal problems in Canada. In terms of the types of problems that immigrants experienced, the most frequently mentioned problems were immigration related, including refugee claims, obtaining work permits, and applications for permanent residence. This finding is consistent with the 2006 legal needs survey which showed that immigration problems were the leading problem type among foreign-born individuals (Currie 2009). In the current study, these problems were often unresolved and a major cause of frustration and reduced well-being. This highlights the importance of conducting research with specific groups, such as immigrants, as their experiences may differ from the larger population.

The current study also found that housing, an important component of immigrants’ settlement process, can become a serious legal problem for immigrants. This fits with related research on the housing difficulties faced by newcomers to Canada more generally (see Rabiah-Mohammed et al. 2021). The immigrants in the current study faced a variety of housing disputes. This included, for example, verbal and physical abuse, threats of getting kicked out, invasions of privacy, and unlawful orders from landlords. A common feature among these cases was immigrants’ lack of knowledge about their rights as tenants, the rights of their landlords, and the rental process in general. Most of the immigrants with housing problems dealt with the situation by moving out and looking for another accommodation without involving the legal system. They often felt there was no other way to deal with the problem. Furthermore, many of the immigrants with housing problems expressed the desire to focus on the future instead of the past so that they could continue building their new lives in Canada.

Besides immigration and housing problems, the immigrants in this study also reported problems with family members and the breakdown of relationships, employment problems, and problems obtaining government assistance/services. It is interesting to note that most of the cases with family issues involved a separation and/or divorce told from the perspective of immigrant women. In contrast, most of the employment-related cases involved immigrant men.

The current study also suggests that some groups of immigrants may be particularly vulnerable to experiencing serious legal problems. This includes refugee claimants whose legal status is more insecure as they are awaiting their Immigration and Refugee Board hearing, as well as temporary foreign workers who are tied to a single employer. The insecurity regarding their legal status in Canada makes them more vulnerable to potential manipulation and exploitation. Furthermore, it may also affect their access to justice out of fear of the repercussions of taking legal action. Finally, international students may face a unique challenge, too, as they are not eligible for the supports and services available to permanent residents, and may not have the funds to pay for these services.

In terms of strategies used to resolve their serious legal problems, the current study found that often immigrants were not aware of the legal implications of their problems when they first encountered them. Also, most of the immigrants in this study were unfamiliar with Canadian law and the various options available to them to solve their legal problems. Furthermore, they were all recent immigrants with a limited network that could help them navigate the system to solve their serious legal problem. For this reason, immigrants often did not know where to ask for help. This was especially the case at the beginning when they first encountered their serious legal problems. In the end, most immigrants received help from people they met by chance or with whom they were already in contact in some other capacity. This typically included friends and relatives, as well as frontline workers of not-for-profit and community-based organizations (e.g., settlement workers, teachers, and doctors).

Besides relying on advice and help from friends, relatives and frontline workers of not-for-profit and community-based organizations, some immigrants decided to seek support from legal professionals. When this strategy was used, it typically followed the advice from friends, relatives, and frontline workers. In fact, this is how most of the interviewed immigrants found their legal professional. In terms of accessing services provided by legal professionals, some immigrants received legal advice and representation for free (i.e., pro bono work, or through legal aid) and some immigrants paid for legal advice. It is important to note that a few immigrants expressed concerns about the cost of professional legal services.

The study also showed that refugees and family-class immigrants often faced a language barrier when trying to resolve their serious legal problems. While the sample size of this study is too small to draw conclusions about the question of whether immigrants with better English skills are more able to resolve their problems, it was clear from the interviews that a lack of English skills posed a significant barrier when exploring different options and when initiating actions to solve a problem.

To judge how effective strategies are in resolving serious legal problems, different indicators can be used. One option is to ask individuals about the usefulness of a strategy. In the current study, immigrants found the advice and help from friends, relatives, and frontline workers of not-for-profit and community-based organizations useful. Furthermore, for the cases that involved the legal system, in most cases immigrants were satisfied with the legal help they had received.

Another option to judge the effectiveness of a strategy is to look at the outcome of a problem, that is, whether a problem was successfully resolved. In the current study, only two cases had come to a resolution with which the immigrants were satisfied. One of these cases involved a temporary foreign worker who fought with his employer over a WSIB claim. In order to solve his problem, the temporary foreign worker relied on the support of a settlement worker and provided all the evidence required by the WSIB to fight the repeated appeals of his employer. In the end, the temporary foreign worker won the case. The second case involved a woman who wanted to get a divorce. In order to solve her problem, she relied on the help of a lawyer paid through legal aid. The lawyer represented her during the entire process until the divorce was finalized. For the other inactive cases, immigrants simply learned to move on and leave their problems in the past. For example, immigrants moved to other accommodations so that they no longer had to deal with their housing problems. Finally, it should also be noted that many of the cases were fairly recent and still ongoing, thus limiting the ability to judge the strategies based on outcomes.

The current study also highlighted that immigrants’ serious legal problems have significant economic, social, and health consequences. In terms of the economic impact, the interviewed immigrants had to borrow money, apply for social assistance, and deal with poor living conditions because of a lack of financial means to some extent attributable to their legal problems. The social and health consequences included tension among family members, ruined friendships, reduced collegiality within work settings, increased anxiety and depression, and physical symptoms. The social and health impact seemed particularly strong as the immigrants were already facing many other challenges typical for the settlement process (e.g., isolation and loneliness in a new country).

Overall, the results of this study show the importance of ensuring that immigrants have access to justice in solving their serious legal problems. One important strategy for achieving this involves investing more in information provision to newcomers, including providing more information about Canadian law and immigrants’ rights, as well as Canadian customs and norms in central domains (e.g., housing, employment). Ideally, this information should be delivered in a variety of languages and should be provided to immigrants as part of their settlement process. In addition, even before being confronted with a serious legal problem, it is important for immigrants to know that help is available and where they can access further information and assistance when the need arises. Thus, the support provided by frontline workers in not-for-profit and community-based organizations should include detailed information on sources of legal information and assistance, given that most often these individuals are central points of contact for immigrants. Finally, different options should be explored to continue to provide affordable professional legal services for immigrants.