Osgoode launches app to aid in immigration, refugee hearings

Close-up photo of judge's gavel on a desk with unseen figure writing on paper in the background

A new online application from a team led by Sean Rehaag, associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and director of its Refugee Law Lab, is designed to equip lawyers with critical legal data needed to improve their odds of winning refugee protections for migrants at risk.

The Refugee Law Lab Portal (RLLP), which launched March 27, provides readily available legal analytics derived from all Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) decisions and judicial reviews of IRB judgments by the Federal Court.

According to Rehaag, the aim of the project – funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario – is to maintain the portal’s legal data so that lawyers can create “targeted” legal arguments, just as a doctor would use targeted medications to treat a patient’s unique symptom profile.

The Refugee Law Lab additionally receives grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Considering the support that public funding provides for both the RLLP, and the lab in general, a crucial goal of the project is to increase the accessibility and equitability of public services like immigration hearings.

“When lawyers appear before decision-makers, they often don’t know who the decision-maker is until they walk into the room, so this can give them a quick way to understand some information about the decision-maker,” Rehaag said.

“If you know you have someone who is never going to grant refugee protection, then your job as a lawyer is to get a review,” he added. “By contrast, if you have someone who’s very sympathetic, you might just want to let the process roll through without interruption to keep the decision-maker on board.”

Rehaag said that subjective decision-making by refugee adjudicators is a reality, but he hopes data provided by the portal will help level the playing field for lawyers.

“From my perspective,” he said, “the key takeaway is that we need to have safeguards for this kind of decision-making to prevent the worst outcomes for refugees.”

Those worst outcomes would include the recent drowning deaths of eight migrants as they attempted to cross the St. Lawrence River into the United States.

“This [portal] can contribute to efforts to create those safeguards,” he added, “and help lawyers develop strategies to deal with the subjectivity of decision-making.”

The Refugee Law Lab plans to continue expanding the portal to provide additional information, including cases that decision-makers most often cite in their decisions. Rehaag said he also hopes that the legal data will help stimulate additional research into Canadian refugee law by other organizations.

Unlike high-priced legal databases, Rehaag said, the Refugee Law Lab Portal is committed to keeping the information accessible, offering it for free and in easy-to-understand formats while at the same time protecting privacy.

Rehaag explained that most of the work in creating the Refugee Law Lab Portal has gone into compiling the data, including developing a sophisticated, cloud-based internet scraping tool to continuously extract data from Federal Court dockets.

“I think it’s a good example of taking academic funding for research and transforming that research so it’s more accessible and useful for practitioners,” he said. “Lawyers are not always comfortable engaging with data.”