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


Research Question 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?

Description of the Types of Serious Legal Problems Faced by Immigrants

The immigrants reported serious legal problems in the following five domains: 1) immigration, 2) housing, 3) family issues and relationship breakdowns, 4) employment, and 5) problems obtaining government assistance/services. The most frequent types of problems were immigration problems, closely followed by housing problems and family issues and relationship breakdowns (see Figure 1). In fourth position were employment-related problems followed by problems obtaining government assistance/services. This last problem type involved only three cases.

Figure 1: Frequency of Each Type of Legal Problem Reported by Immigrants

Figure 1: Frequency of Each Type of Legal Problem Reported by Immigrants

Figure 1: Frequency of Each Type of Legal Problem Reported by Immigrants – Text version

This is a bar graph showing five columns with the first column being the highest and each column after being a little shorter. The first column is the highest (9 on the 10 point scale) – it says “Immigration problems”. The next one (7 out of 10) says “housing problems”; the third column (6 out of 10) says “Family issues and relationship breakdowns”; the fourth column (5 out of 10) says “Employment related problems”, and the last column (3 out of 10) says “Problems obtaining government assistance/services”.

Immigration problems: The types of immigration-related problems that immigrants in this study encountered depended on their immigration category and their unique circumstances. The following are examples of immigration-related cases:

Housing problems: Another common type of problem faced by the interviewees were housing-related problems. Immigrants faced different issues with housing, including disputes with their landlords and roommates (i.e., threats of getting kicked out, invasions of privacy, unlawful orders from landlords). In many cases, the landlords were former immigrants themselves from backgrounds similar to the immigrants interviewed for this study. The following are examples of cases with housing problems:

Another woman in a similar situation could not afford to leave her one-year contract and mentioned that she would put blockades on her door in case the landlord tried to come in or do something against her and her children.

Family issues and relationship breakdowns: Another common problem faced by the immigrants in this study had to do with family conflict and/or relationship problems. This included going through a divorce, trying to leave relationships marked by domestic violence, and disputes about child support. The following are examples of cases with family issues and relationship breakdowns:

Employment-related problems: A fourth area of problems faced by some of the immigrants in this study centred around employment issues. This included cases of poor working conditions, pay below minimum wage, withheld salaries, and being fired for no clear reason (as stated by the immigrant). In another case, an immigrant (who was a temporary foreign worker) suffered a workplace injury and the employers contested the outcome of the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB) claim. In two cases, the employer was a larger organization. In the other cases, the employers were other immigrants. The following are examples of cases with employment-related problems:

Problems obtaining government assistance/services: The final type of problem faced by the immigrants in this study related to obtaining government assistance/services. The following are examples of cases with problems obtaining government assistance/services:

Connectedness of Problems

Nine of the 21 interviewees reported experiences with two serious legal problems. However, only one immigrant thought that there was a connection between his problems. The refugee claimant who was waiting for his hearing felt particularly vulnerable when dealing with a dispute with his roommate. The interviewee indicated that his roommate knew about his status as a refugee claimant and how he was anxious about getting into any kind of trouble because he was waiting for court hearings. He thought his roommate took advantage of this situation to mistreat him.

Factors Contributing to the Serious Legal Problems Faced by Immigrants

The interviews revealed five themes explaining some of the factors that may have contributed to immigrants’ serious legal problems. These themes are: 1) immigrants’ unfamiliarity with Canadian law and their rights, 2) immigrants’ unfamiliarity with basic Canadian customs and norms for everyday living, 3) self-reported discrimination, 4) lack of or inefficient communication from the government/government agencies, and 5) the pandemic.

Unfamiliarity with Canadian law and their rights: A common factor reported as contributing to immigrants’ serious legal problems was being unaware of or unfamiliar with Canadian law and of their rights in Canada, which made them more vulnerable to manipulation and mistreatment by landlords, work managers (e.g., may not receive a fair salary), or family members. The following are examples that illustrate immigrants’ unfamiliarity with Canadian law and their rights:

Unfamiliarity with basic Canadian customs and norms for everyday living: Another commonly described factor contributing to immigrants’ serious legal problems was immigrants’ unfamiliarity with Canadian customs, especially with the rental process.

Self-reported discrimination: A third factor described as contributing to immigrants’ serious legal problems was discrimination. During the interviews, when asked what factors contributed to the development of their serious legal problems, some immigrants identified discrimination as one of the factors. In these cases, discrimination was self-reported by the immigrants themselves, rather than being interpreted as such by the interviewers. Immigrants were not provided with a definition of discrimination; but discrimination was recorded if the interviewees themselves identified the experience as such. Thus, this category includes only cases of self-reported discrimination. Self-reported discrimination was especially prevalent in the employment disputes, but also appeared in a housing dispute and in a case of problems obtaining government assistance/services. The following are examples:

Lack of or inefficient communication from the government/government agencies: A fourth factor reported as contributing to the immigrants’ legal problems was a perceived lack of or inefficient communication processes between the government/government agencies and individuals. The example below shows the case of a woman who stopped receiving her child tax benefit:

So I called CRA and you know how long you stay on the phone, an hour every time, and then, “No sorry, we have to study your case.” And they updated everything I told them over the phone, and they’re like, “We’ll get back to you.” And time just passed. It was three months, and I haven’t received anything. They did not even send me any mail or anything that says whatever is going on in my case. And then the company where I rented just sent me an email saying, “It’s been like three months now, and you’re not paying your rent — we need to talk about it.” So, receiving that mail of notice, I felt very unsecure because I don’t want to harm my credit. I worked so hard to keep my credit high.”

The pandemic: The pandemic seems to have impacted immigrants’ serious legal problems in a variety of ways. This includes delays in processing immigration applications, delays in obtaining information about the immigration status of individuals, and threats to the legal status of an international student and her family. It was felt that information and communication would have reduced some of the stress associated with these problems.

Research Question 2: How have recent immigrants tried to resolve their problems? What has been the outcome of these efforts?

Strategies Used and Difficulties Experienced

The following themes emerged in terms of how participants tried to resolve their problems:

Outcome of Immigrants’ Serious Legal Problems

Five of the 21 immigrants were no longer dealing with their serious legal problems. Two of these individuals were able to resolve their problems and reported being happy about the resolution. The other three did not resolve their problems but simply learned to leave them in the past and to move on. For 11 immigrants, their serious legal problems were still ongoing or only partially resolved at the time of the interview. In the remaining five cases, immigrants were able to resolve one problem but were still trying to find a solution for another problem.

Did any strategies prove to be particularly useful for immigrants to resolve their serious legal problems?

The two immigrants who were happy with how their problems were resolved used different methods. In one case, the immigrant relied on the help of a lawyer paid through legal aid. In the other case, the immigrant relied on help from a settlement worker. In both cases, the immigrants were satisfied with the help they had received.

Most of the other cases that were no longer active were housing cases. Immigrants were able to deal with their problems by finding another place to live. This included relying on advice and help from friends and settlement workers, as well as actively looking for another accommodation. Finally, a general pattern that emerged was that, regardless of the outcome of the serious legal problem, immigrants valued and found the advice from friends and relatives useful. They also valued the advice from teachers, doctors, and settlement workers, which was often obtained through chance interactions, rather than the immigrants purposely seeking advice for their problems.

Research Question 3: Have recent immigrants resolved their problems through recourse to the formal legal system? If not, why not?

Do Immigrants Seek Legal Advice?

Nine immigrants did not try to solve their serious legal problems through the legal system. They did not seek legal advice or go through the formal legal system.

Of the 12 immigrants who were trying to solve their problems through the legal system, five had obtained legal advice at the time of the interview – three of these individuals received legal advice for free through legal aid and a paralegal who did pro bono work, and two of these individuals paid a lawyer for legal advice. An additional five immigrants had active legal cases represented by lawyers paid by legal aid. One other interviewee was waiting for a court appearance after being physically assaulted by her partner. She did not hire a lawyer as she thought the case was on her side. Finally, one immigrant paid for an immigration consultant and an immigration lawyer. In most cases, immigrants found the legal advice and legal representation they had received helpful.

Immigrants did not have a broad network that could help them easily find legal advice and legal representation. Instead, immigrants asked their friends and other people they happened to be in contact with in some other capacity for a referral. In the end, immigrants who paid for legal advice from lawyers found their lawyers through friends. Immigrants who obtained legal aid were often referred to their lawyers by their settlement workers.

Why Did Some Immigrants Not Seek Legal Advice or Go Through the Legal System?

Three themes are relevant to the question of why some immigrants did not seek legal advice or handle their problems through the legal system: 1) immigrants fear the consequences of pursuing legal actions, 2) costs associated with obtaining legal advice, and 3) preference to focus on the future.

Fear of consequences: Immigrants were at times afraid to take legal action against others out of fear that it might reflect badly on them or otherwise affect their immigration status or application process. The following are examples that illustrate this point:

Costs: At times immigrants did not take legal action because of the anticipated costs, including mostly financial costs, but also costs in terms of time. The following are three examples:

I always wondered what kind of legal advice I could get. I got the name, phone number and address of a lawyer that speaks Spanish, but she charges $200 for an appointment. Because of my working situation, I just started working in July, I didn’t have the money to get an appointment with her. Also, the pandemic started and COVID made it more difficult. I have been waiting for the COVID situation to get better so I can get advice from her. I just want to get my legal separation from my husband. I don’t want any child support or anything, I just want to be legally separated.

Well, the stress was worse about all of it because as international students we are vulnerable, we don’t have a lot of information or we don’t have a lot of tools that we can access when we are in trouble. We’re not refugees, we’re not permanent residents, so there is very limited help we could have. If you have money, you can solve most of the problems, but if you don’t, then it’s more difficult.

We went for legal advice; we went to a lawyer. We’re now in the process of putting together the humanitarian application ourselves. We went to a lawyer. We went to a first advice consultation for them to explain us where to go and how to do, but financially, we cannot afford it because it’s almost five thousand for the whole process. So, we decided to make ourselves our application for the humanitarian visa, and that’s where we are now in the process.

Preference to focus on the future: Some immigrants did not want to have continuing problems and decided to focus on the future instead of pursuing legal action.

Research Question 4: What has been the economic, social and health impact of these problems on recent immigrants?

Economic Impact

One theme that emerged was that immigrants had additional expenses because of their serious legal problems. This included paying for an immigration consultant/lawyer, paying additional deposits when moving, and paying money for subpar or unmet services (e.g., paralegal scam, payment to arrange housing prior to arrival in Canada). As a result, the immigrants often had to borrow money from friends and neighbours. This included immigrants with different types of legal problems, such as a woman who wanted to separate from her husband and did not have enough money to support herself and her children, and a government-assisted refugee who waited a long time to get his social insurance number and had to turn down a job as a result, missing the opportunity to make money. Another common economic consequence was that the immigrants often had to apply for social assistance (e.g., Ontario Works, Employment Insurance benefits). For example, two women who separated from their husbands had to apply for Ontario Works. Two men with employment problems (unpaid wages, fired) applied for Ontario Works/Employment Insurance.

Another economic impact that emerged was that the immigrants’ housing situations were affected at times. This was the case for immigrants with housing problems and immigrants with relationship breakdowns who had to find other places to live. The result was having to accept poor living conditions or expensive rentals given that there was often not enough time to look for new housing.

The following is a quote from a woman who separated from her husband:

He left us without any money, without anything. The money we get from Ontario Works was not enough to pay the rent, so we couldn’t pay. One day, we were shocked with a decision from the owner that we have to leave at this date. That was a final decision for him. I tried, I looked everywhere for a place to move in until I found an apartment, two bedrooms only. Though it was small for us, that was the only option in front of me. So, we moved to that small apartment.

Social Impact

Immigrants with different types of problems also suffered social consequences. Examples include:

Health Impact

Overall, most immigrants experienced health problems due to their legal problems. This includes:

Three immigrants also expressed the desire to move or relocate once their problems are resolved due to worries about their safety or their desire to have a fresh start.