«Karen Cohl and George Thomson December 2008 Connecting Across Language and Distance: Linguistic and Rural Access to Legal Information and Services ...»
Of course, the most pressing needs vary from community to community. For example, immigration issues are usually associated with urban linguistic minorities, but with pockets of need in some rural areas. In general, the need for information in family law appears to be particularly acute. Within family law, legal information and assistance for parents involved in child protection matters is an area that seems to be falling through the cracks.
We look forward to learning more about legal needs from the Ontario Civil Legal Needs Project currently under way under the leadership of the Law Society of Upper Canada and Pro Bono Law Ontario.
4. We need to create a system, not an entity Most legal problems are inextricably linked with other issues. For that reason, linguistic and rural access to justice cuts across both the various elements of the justice system and the many community organizations that serve other needs. Improving linguistic and rural access to justice therefore requires a systemic response, and we have concluded that no one organization, existing or new, can or should “own” that response.
We believe that the preferred solution is to provide multiple points of access to an integrated system, which, from the client’s perspective, is seamless. In our recommendations, we propose ways to move toward such an integrated system and ways in which the Law Foundation could play an important role in supporting those efforts.
5. Community agencies are an essential part of an integrated system Community organizations are often the first point of contact for linguistic minorities and rural and remote residents with legal difficulties. These are the places where both groups generally go for services and are very often the door to a broader spectrum of services, including legal information and advice. Access to a “trusted intermediary” in a health, social service, or other organization is particularly important for persons who are isolated, not comfortable with technology, and less able to pursue self-help options.
Many people rely on advice from friends and family when seeking information about problems that have a legal component. Beyond that, however, our research showed that they turn to organizations they trust and see as relevant to them and the challenges they face. An effective systemic response should encompass the array of community organizations to which our target groups turn for help. We see them as essential partners in an integrated system.
6. A commitment to collaboration is the foundation for effective and sustainable results In the course of our work on this project, we observed that promising access to justice strategies, here and elsewhere, were usually grounded in a collaborative effort on the part of multiple organizations to achieve a shared objective. Often, the effort involved sharing resources or looking for solutions that made best use of the resources available.
Thus, as a corollary to creating a system rather than an entity, we see a need to build partnerships or consortiums that share a common vision and are prepared to work together to make it a reality. Both legal and non-legal organizations expressed willingness to be part of that effort, and we believe that the Law Foundation can play a key leadership role in fostering and supporting collaboration.
7. The timing is right to move ahead on linguistic and rural access to justice initiatives Our research and consultations have convinced us that Ontario has the capacity to build a system that meets the needs of linguistic minorities and residents of rural and remote communities. Legal and non-legal organizations and the provincial government, all of whom have other responsibilities and interests, are recognizing the need and turning their attention to the issue. Many of the promising practices we highlighted in Chapters 2 and 3 are made-inOntario initiatives.
These developments, coupled with the Foundation’s commitment to linguistic and rural access to justice, place Ontario in an ideal position to make significant improvements in these two important areas.
Ontario’s strengths and challenges To build an effective, integrated system, we need to incorporate the elements of the Ontario context that work well and address those that could hinder progress.
Strengths Legal Aid Ontario and community legal clinics
Ontario has one of the strongest legal aid programs in existence. The well-developed network of community legal clinics funded by Legal Aid Ontario is a remarkable resource. The clinics are expert in many areas of law of importance to vulnerable people in both target groups. Unlike other jurisdictions that do not have a comparable legal aid or clinic system or have cut back on these methods of providing legal service, Ontario has protected and even expanded its province-wide network of community legal clinics. Specialty clinics focus on specific areas of the law, specific functions (such as public legal information), and specific populations (such as persons with disabilities, seniors, Aboriginal peoples, and ethno-racial and linguistic groups).
This system of legal aid services, including community-based and specialty legal clinics, is a unique resource simply not available in most other jurisdictions.
Today, clinic catchment areas cover all parts of the province and many clinics have satellite offices to help reach clients in rural or remote areas. The clinics have close connections with the communities they serve. Agencies that directly assist linguistic minorities and rural and remote populations repeatedly told us that the general service and specialty clinics have earned high credibility in the communities they serve.
As noted under “Challenges,” below, we believe that clinics could do more to operate as a system. However, clinics do collaborate in a number of ways. Clinic training is coordinated, and regional executive directors meet at least a few times per year to discuss regional issues. In several cases, two or more clinics have pooled their resources to hire a shared caseworker or interpreter, or to create materials such as an intake manual on a specific topic. In addition, both general service and specialty clinics participate, at the regional and provincial levels, in inter-clinic work groups in the main areas of poverty law. In housing and social assistance, two specialty clinics provide coordination and support for other clinics on those two legal issues.
An example of collaboration within the legal aid community is the Four County Legal Aid Ontario Service Coordination Network (Frontenac, Hastings, Lennox and Addington, and Prince Edward counties), in which clinics, area offices, and duty counsel collaborate on referral protocols, joint staff training, web-based resources, and joint community outreach.
Legal Aid Ontario has been the subject of recent and ongoing reviews, and discussions are under way on how best to use the web to provide legal information and interactive assistance.
Michael Trebilcock, p. 81.
New and established legal bodies Ontario’s legal establishment is robust. Established legal institutions such as the Law Society of Upper Canada and the Ontario Bar Association are looking at a variety of access to justice issues, including better ways to meet the needs of a diverse population. There are numerous lawyers’ associations, including those representing specific ethno-cultural or linguistic groups.
Organizations such as the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic and the Human Rights Legal Support Centre have emerged to provide services, separate from Legal Aid Ontario, for vulnerable people. Reach Canada, which facilitates access to lawyers for persons with disabilities, is another example of a legal organization formed to meet specific needs.
Ontario also is fortunate to have relatively new organizations, established with support from the
Law Foundation and other funders, which enrich the scope for access to justice initiatives:
• The Ontario Justice Education Network has made significant efforts to help students and their teachers learn about the justice system and fundamental legal instruments such as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. By using volunteer lawyers and judges and partnering with educational organizations, it represents an innovative approach to delivering legal information.
• Pro Bono Law Ontario represents the first major, organized effort in this province to make available, in planned and innovative ways, volunteer legal service from the legal community. It has developed a broad range of programs that provide pro bono legal assistance to individuals, community organizations, clinics and community workers in remote Ontario communities.
• The newly established Law Commission of Ontario will recommend law reform measures that will, among other things, enhance the accessibility of the legal system, clarify and simplify the law, consider how technology can enhance access to justice, and stimulate legal research, policy, and debate.
Law students As Ontario’s law schools increasingly reflect our diversity, law students will be more able to provide legal information and (under supervision) legal advice and services in minority languages. There are also good examples of law students and student legal aid programs supporting community organizations and applying innovation to bringing services to rural and remote communities. Pro Bono Students Canada is a catalyst in this effort.
Community organizations Community organizations may be crisis-response services such as shelters or hotlines, immigrant settlement agencies, or general services such as libraries, community centres, and information and referral organizations. They may provide a cultural connection, or they may have already provided health care or other essential services to a person now seeking help with a legal difficulty. Elsewhere in this report, we have noted the importance of community organizations that serve one or both of our target groups. We wish to add that we were enormously impressed with their dedication, commitment, and eagerness to work on solutions with legal community partners.
Government of Ontario The government of Ontario has assumed a special role in efforts to protect victims of family violence. It supports a network of interpreter services and innovative efforts to enable victims to access information and advice. The government has also developed an impressive videoconferencing network that serves the courts, police, and correctional services and may provide a foundation for more extensive use of this technology in other justice settings. It also recently launched the Justice Ontario website, which provides information about the legal system and several areas of the law.
Challenges Earlier chapters summarize many barriers that limit access to justice in Ontario for our two target groups. This section highlights a few primary obstacles that stand in the way of having Ontario organizations working together as a system to address the barriers. It is important to acknowledge the obstacles because they affect the decision about where the Law Foundation can make an important contribution.
A continuing concern, repeated throughout our consultations, was the gap between the need for services and the resources available. For example, we heard about the limits of legal aid funding, the lack of core funding for community agencies, concern about family law supports for low-income persons (particularly in the child protection area) and the overall shortage of legal services in the priority areas of law. Our research confirmed that such concerns are common to all jurisdictions trying to address these problems. At the same time, we also saw evidence that projects linked to a shared sense of direction can produce real progress, provided that investments are made strategically, where they can have the greatest impact.
We also observed that efforts to incorporate technology into new approaches have been more modest and slower to evolve in Ontario than in other jurisdictions.
There is little evidence of province-wide or regional efforts to create a systemic response to access to justice challenges that builds from a shared vision, involves all who need to be part of it, identifies the highest priorities, and explores the benefits of working together. While some collaboration and innovative partnerships exist, there are few incentives to create and nurture them. As a result, systemic issues do not get sufficient attention.
Michael Trebilcock, p. vi.
We also believe that the link between community agencies where people go for help and providers of legal advice and services is generally weaker than it should be. Much of the frustration we encountered revolved around the cycle of unhelpful referrals.
Finally, while community clinics are a valuable resource and collaborate in many ways now, we believe they have even greater potential to achieve results by working more as a system, within the Legal Aid Ontario network of services and with other legal and community partners. We believe that it is possible to preserve the community connections that are essential to the clinic model while also introducing measures that create a system that is much more than a sum of its parts.
Chapter 6: Vision Overarching vision: a coordinated system In Ontario now, there is some innovation and promising, isolated experiments to improve linguistic and rural access to justice. Apart from some notable exceptions in particular areas, however, there is no harmonized sense of direction, and no collective decision-making about areas of priority. With a concerted effort to develop a coordinated system, the opportunity exists to create synergy in the good work of many dedicated organizations and make concrete and sustainable improvements.
Based on the guiding principles and all that we heard, learned and concluded, we have
developed an overarching vision for a coordinated system:
A coordinated system would have two main elements:
A learning approach Participants in the system would adopt the premise that evaluation and collective learning are essential to linguistic and rural access to justice. This would mean a concerted effort to test and evaluate new approaches, learn from experiences here and elsewhere, and adapt programs where required.