Pro bono legal program bridges the justice gap for families with sick kids


This work depicts words overlaid with distinct shapes — the right represents the hospital staff, lawyers and funding, while the left is the family. Of interest is the independence of both shapes — never quite taking over or overlapping, but instead respecting the space and the support needed. Stephanie Seagram, Artist

When your child is in the hospital, the last thing you want to hear is you’ve lost your job because you’ve spent too much time away from work.

Thanks to the medical-legal partnership started by Pro Bono Ontario (PBO) at McMaster Children’s Hospital, low-income families can get much-needed legal support when faced with such difficult circumstances. “These are families who are already doing so much,” says lawyer, Hilary Mack. “This service can take a little stress off their plate.”

Hilary’s title is “triage lawyer”—a nod to the hospital setting and a direct reference to her role as a resource for quick assessment and referral. “Like a doctor would look at a patient, I look at their legal issue and recommend how best to address it.”

Consultations often happen at the child’s bedside but an important part of the program is training clinicians to recognize the signs of legal concerns so they can refer families. The most common concerns Hilary sees relate to family law, immigration, government benefits, employment, education and housing. She refers more complex cases to the program’s partners Ross & McBride and Gowlings, who take the cases pro bono, and the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic.

PBO has established medical-legal partnerships in five children’s hospitals since 2009. The Hamilton program is a pilot supported by the Ruth Hindmarsh Atkinson Award. A grant from HCF’s Edith H. Turner Foundation Fund is expanding Hilary’s time onsite, which is critical to keeping the program top of mind for the clinicians who refer families to the services.

PBO executive director Lynn Burns says the program not only helps overwhelmed families focus on caring for their children, but the experience at Toronto SickKids shows other long-lasting benefits.

“Families may have multiple legal problems that have been unresolved for years,” she says. “In our SickKids evaluation, none of the families had sought legal assistance prior to the social worker suggesting they contact our program—and 89 percent said we improved their financial situation. It’s a good poverty reduction strategy.”


Excerpt from 2016 Annual Report