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


In the last 25 years, many countries around the world have conducted legal needs surveys in an attempt to investigate the types of serious legal problems that people face in their everyday lives (OECD 2019). Everyday serious legal problems can be defined as problems that arise out of people’s normal activities that have a legal aspect and that could, but do not have to, be resolved through the legal system (Farrow et al. 2016). Legal needs surveys take a “bottom-up” approach in that they investigate serious legal problems from the perspective of the individuals who actually face them, as opposed to the perspective of justice professionals and institutions (OECD 2019). By conducting legal needs surveys, countries collect empirical evidence that is key for the development of effective civil justice policies, models, and financing.

In Canada, legal needs surveys were conducted by the Department of Justice Canada in 2004, 2006 and 2008 (Currie 2005, 2009, 2016). More recently, in 2014, the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice conducted the “Civil Justice Everyday Legal Problems and the Cost of Justice in Canada National Study.” The study found that within a three-year period, an estimated 11.4 million or one-third of adult Canadians will experience one or more everyday legal problems that they consider to be serious and difficult to resolve (Currie 2016). According to the survey, the most common serious legal problems faced by Canadians include consumer debt and employment-related problems, as well as problems with neighbours, family, and discrimination (Currie 2016).

The 2006 and 2014 studies also showed that individuals with social disadvantages (i.e., individuals who are unemployed, on social assistance, divorced or separated, single parents, and visible minorities) are more likely to experience multiple serious legal problems (Currie 2009, 2016). There is also evidence that the more problems individuals experience, the more likely they are to suffer from health and social consequences (Currie 2009). However, there is limited knowledge about the experiences of specific groups who may likely be more socially disadvantaged, such as recent immigrants. Recent immigrants may be particularly vulnerable to experiencing serious legal problems as they may face multiple challenges as they settle in Canada (Esses et al. 2013). In this context, the goal of this qualitative study was to gain a better understanding of the types of serious legal problems that recent immigrants face, how they try to resolve these problems, and how these problems impact their lives economically, socially, physically, and mentally.

Immigrants in Canada

This study is particularly important considering that Canada has long been a country of immigration and welcomes many new immigrants each year (Statistics Canada 2016). In fact, since the early 1990s, Canada has admitted a relatively high number of new immigrants, with generally more than 200,000 new immigrants arriving each year (Statistics Canada 2016). More recently, Canada increased its immigration level plan, and in 2017 the goal was to target over 300,000 new immigrants per year over the next three years (310,000 in 2018, 330,000 in 2019, and 340,000 in 2020; Government of Canada 2017). These targets were surpassed in both 2018 and 2019, with Canada admitting 321,035 new permanent residents in 2018 and 341,180 new permanent residents in 2019 (Government of Canada 2019, 2020a). In 2020, however, the number of new permanent residents admitted to Canada was below target due to the COVID-19 pandemic (El-Assal 2020a), with a total of 184,370 new immigrants being admitted to Canada. Compared with 2019, this is a shortfall of 46 percent (El-Assal 2021). To compensate for the drop in immigration in 2020, the government announced in late 2020 that it would admit over 400,000 new immigrants per year for the next three years (Government of Canada 2020c).

Immigrants to Canada are a diverse group of individuals. They land in Canada through different immigration categories and come from different source countries. Immigrants enter Canada through four main immigration categories: a) the economic class, b) the family class, c) refugees and protected persons, and d) the other immigration category. Economic immigrants are immigrants who are admitted to Canada because of their ability to contribute to Canada’s economy. They are selected based on their human capital (education, language, age, and work experience in skilled occupations) and may also receive additional points if they have a job offer in Canada. Included in the economic immigrant category are immigrants who are selected for their skills and potential to build or to own and manage a business, to make a substantial investment, or to create their own employment. Family-class immigrants are immigrants who are sponsored by a family member who is either a Canadian citizen or permanent resident. Refugees and protected persons are individuals who are admitted to Canada on the basis of a well-founded fear of returning to their home country. This includes government-assisted refugees, privately sponsored refugees, blended-visa office-referred refugees, and individuals who are granted protected person status in Canada. The “other” immigration category includes immigrants who are admitted to Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds or for public policy reasons as well as immigrants who are granted permanent resident status under a program that is not included in the three other immigration categories. In 2019, 57.6 percent of new permanent residents were admitted through the economic category, 26.8 percent through family sponsorship, 14.2 percent through the refugees and protected persons category, and 1.4 percent through the “other” immigration category (Government of Canada 2020a).

Immigrants’ source countries are also diverse. However, this was not always the case. Historically, immigrants to Canada mainly originated from Europe (Statistics Canada 2016). Immigrants’ source countries started to diversify more and more from the 1960s onwards (Statistics Canada 2016). Today, Canada welcomes new immigrants from 175 countries (El-Assal 2020b). The top five source countries in 2019 were India, China, the Philippines, Nigeria, and the USA (El-Assal 2020b).

Once immigrants arrive in Canada, they tend to settle in large urban areas such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver (Drolet & Teixeira 2020). In 2019, 56 percent of new permanent residents settled in these cities (Government of Canada 2020d). Furthermore, in 2019, over 90 percent of new permanent residents settled in Canada’s Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs, Government of Canada 2020d), a percentage that is much higher than that for the Canadian-born population (60 percent, Statistics Canada 2018).

The focus of the current study is on immigrants living in London, Ontario, and Toronto, Ontario. These communities were targeted in order to represent a medium-sized centre and a large centre in Ontario, and to try to ensure that several categories of immigrants were included. According to the 2016 Census, 19.5 percent of the population in the CMA of London are immigrants, with a large percentage of refugees and protected persons (32.7 percent are refugees and protected persons; 41.2 percent are economic immigrants, and 25.1 percent are family-class immigrants, Statistics Canada 2017a). This is also reflected in the most frequent birth countries among recent immigrants in London, including Syria, India, China, Iraq, and Colombia. In the CMA of Toronto, 46.1 percent of the population are immigrants, with almost half being economic immigrants (49.9 percent), followed by family-class immigrants (33.7 percent) and refugees and protected persons (15.0 percent, Statistics Canada 2017a). In the CMA of Toronto, recent immigrants’ top countries of birth are India, China, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Iran.

Previous Research on the Serious Legal Problems Faced by Immigrants in Canada

Some of the findings from past legal needs surveys in Canada have focused on foreign-born individuals and visible minorities. While not all visible minorities may be immigrants, the data about visible minorities may be indicative of some of the experiences faced by recent immigrants. This is because the share of visible minorities among recent immigrants has been increasing in recent years (Statistics Canada 2017b).

Evidence from the 2006 legal needs survey shows that in Canada, foreign-born individuals are more likely to experience an immigration- or discrimination-related problem than other individuals (Currie 2009). Similarly, visible minorities are more likely to experience several problem types. In 2006, the highest discrepancy in problem prevalence between visible minorities and Whites was for problems related to discrimination and problems involving police action (Currie 2009).

In terms of outcomes and perceived fairness of outcomes, the 2004 legal needs survey found that, across problem types, visible minorities and foreign-born individuals were more likely to report unresolved problems than all other individuals (Currie 2005). In addition, among individuals who were able to resolve their problems, visible minorities and foreign-born individuals were more likely to perceive the outcome of their problems as unfair (Currie 2005). Finally, according to the 2006 legal needs survey, visible minorities were more likely to experience emotional stress, physical health consequences, and social consequences and report fears of safety and security due to their serious legal problems (Currie 2009).

In terms of problems specific to immigration issues, past research has shown that these problems can be related to the sponsorship of a family member, permanent residence applications, work or student visa applications, Canadian citizenship applications, appeals of immigration or refugee decisions through judicial review, as well as issues obtaining health assistance, social assistance, and other assistance while awaiting a refugee hearing or another immigration matter (Farrow et al. 2018). Furthermore, there is evidence that immigration problems are among the problems with the highest share of unresolved cases (Currie 2005, 2009). Finally, evidence from the 2004 legal needs survey suggests that even when individuals are able to resolve their problems, immigration problems are perceived as one of the top problems, with outcomes perceived to be unfair (Currie 2005).

The Current Research

In order to expand on these findings, a qualitative study was conducted with recent immigrants living in London, Ontario, and Toronto, Ontario in mid- to late 2020. Recent immigrants were asked about their experiences with serious legal problems within the last three years (or since their arrival in Canada if they had been in Canada less than three years). In particular, recent immigrants were interviewed regarding the following research questions:

  1. What types of problems have recent immigrants experienced in the last three years? Where there has been more than one problem, how are the problems connected?
  2. How have recent immigrants tried to resolve their problems? What has been the outcome of these efforts?
  3. Have recent immigrants resolved their problems through recourse to the formal legal system? If not, why not?
  4. What has been the economic, social, and health impact of these problems on recent immigrants?