New Refugee Law Lab Portal could contribute to more just outcomes for migrants and their lawyers

Photo of Professor Sean Rehaag on white background
Professor Sean Rehaag

A new online application developed by the Refugee Law Lab at Osgoode Hall Law School could provide lawyers with the critical legal data they need to improve their odds of winning refugee protection for their clients.

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

Professor Sean Rehaag, director of the Refugee Law Lab, said the portal’s legal data can be used by lawyers to create “targeted” legal arguments, just as a doctor would use targeted medications to treat a patient’s unique symptom profile.

“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,” he 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.”

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

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.

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 data bases, 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.

“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.”

The three-year portal project, which is currently in its second year, is funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario, while the Refugee Law Lab receives its funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

Rehaag said 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.