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

Executive Summary

The goal of this qualitative study was to gain an in-depth understanding of recent immigrants’ experiences with serious legal problems in Canada. Serious legal problems are problems that arise out of people’s normal activities that have a legal aspect and that could potentially be resolved through the legal system (Farrow et al. 2016). Examples of serious legal problems include consumer debt, employment-related problems, and problems with neighbours, family, and discrimination (Currie 2016).

Past research found that within a three-year period, almost half of adult Canadians will experience one or more everyday legal problems that they consider to be serious and difficult to resolve (Currie 2016). In terms of the experiences of immigrants in Canada, past research found that foreign-born individuals are more likely to experience certain types of problems, such as immigration or discrimination-related problems, compared with other individuals (Currie 2009), and that foreign-born individuals are more likely to report unresolved problems (Currie 2005).

For the current research, 21 online interviews were conducted in mid- to late 2020 with recent immigrants living in London, Ontario and Toronto, Ontario. Immigrants were recruited through two immigrant-serving agencies: The South London Neighbourhood Resource Centre and COSTI Immigrant Services in Toronto. Most of the interviewees immigrated to Canada as refugees or refugee claimants. The remaining immigrants were sponsored by family members or entered Canada as skilled workers, as temporary foreign workers, or international students.

The interviewed immigrants reported serious legal problems in the following domains (in order of most frequent to least frequent): 1) immigration, 2) housing, 3) family issues and relationship breakdowns, 4) employment, and 5) problems obtaining government assistance/services. Almost half of the interviewees experienced more than one serious legal problem.

The interviews revealed a variety of factors that seem to have contributed to immigrants’ serious legal problems. First, most interviewees were unfamiliar with Canadian law and their rights. In addition, most interviewees were unfamiliar with the basic customs and norms of everyday living in Canada, especially with the rental process. This made them more vulnerable to experiencing housing-related problems. Some interviewees also reported that discrimination contributed to the development of their serious legal problems, and that their serious legal problems were aggravated by the lack of or inefficient communication from the government/government agencies. Finally, some immigrants reported being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in that the pandemic created delays in processing immigration applications and in obtaining immigration information.

In terms of strategies used to resolve their serious legal problems, the interviewees often did not know where to go to obtain help. Two critical barriers were their lack of English language skills, and limited networks in Canada that could help them navigate the system to resolve their serious legal problems. In the end, most interviewees received help from frontline workers of non-profit and community-based organizations (e.g., settlement workers, teachers, family doctors), as well as friends and relatives. Overall, immigrants valued and found the advice from these individuals to be useful.

Almost 60 percent of the interviewees tried to solve their problems through the legal system by seeking legal advice and representation. Some of the immigrants obtained this legal advice and representation for free (i.e., pro bono work, or through legal aid) and others relied on paid services from lawyers and consultants. In most cases, immigrants found the legal advice and legal representation they had received helpful. The interviewees who chose not to seek legal advice or to handle their problems through the legal system mentioned three reasons for this decision: a) fear of the consequences of pursuing legal actions, b) worry about the costs associated with obtaining legal advice, and c) preference to focus on the future and leave their problems in the past.

Most of the serious legal problems reported by interviewees were recent and still ongoing. For the few who were no longer dealing with their serious legal problems, some had successfully resolved their problems and others had simply learned to move on.

Interviewees’ lives were significantly impacted by their serious legal problems. Economically, they had to borrow money, apply for social assistance, and deal with poor living conditions because of some of the financial consequences of their legal problems. Socially, they reported tensions with family members, ruined friendships, and reduced collegiality within work settings. Physically and mentally, they reported various health problems, such as sleep deprivation, headaches, blood pressure problems, stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

The results of this study show the importance of ensuring that immigrants have access to justice in resolving their serious legal problems. One 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 the settlement process. It is also 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 it is these individuals who are most often central points of contact for immigrants. In addition, different options should be explored to continue to provide affordable professional legal services for immigrants.