«Karen Cohl and George Thomson December 2008 Connecting Across Language and Distance: Linguistic and Rural Access to Legal Information and Services ...»
There has been good headway in producing multilingual text materials, but progress has been slower with audio and other formats. The use of audio recordings allows organizations to reach people with low literacy skills in their first languages, as well as people who are blind and prefer this format. Other alternative formats are also needed, such as Braille, large print, and American Sign Language and langue des signes québécoise translations of print documents.
Ideas for overcoming barriers Our research and consultations found many examples of efforts, in Ontario and elsewhere, to overcome linguistic barriers to access to legal information and services. Consultation participants also suggested ideas for overcoming these barriers.
The practices and strategies we heard about can be organized under three main themes:
• Providing legal information and services in the client’s first language
• Conducting special outreach to clients who are most vulnerable and isolated because of language, culture, and other factors
• Improving access to professional interpreters when first language services are not available.
Another key strategy that emerged from the project was enhancing the capacity of non-legal organizations to act as trusted intermediaries between clients and legal service providers. We discuss this strategy for improving both linguistic and rural access in Chapter 4.
First language services All immigrant advocates recognize that having a bilingual staff – especially bilingual advocates – is the most important step a provider can take to increase and improve service to new immigrants. Some would argue that it is the only step that will do so. 24 During our consultations, we often heard about the importance of providing legal services in the client’s language whenever possible. Using an interpreter, even a highly qualified one, has inherent complications and limitations. There can never be enough legal practitioners to offer services in all the languages and dialects spoken in Ontario, but some promising practices and strategies suggest ways to do more to increase opportunities to serve clients in their own languages.
Specialty legal services
Ethno-racial communities need ethno-specific services because although the law may be neutral and universally applicable (from a mainstream perspective), legal issues facing ethno-racial communities are not neutral but rather specific and therefore the responses to them must also be specific. 26 Ethno-cultural and ethno-racial legal clinics in Ontario and elsewhere provide culturally sensitive services, with some capacity for service in the client’s first language. Lawyers, Neil McBride.
Uzma Shakir (Atkinson fellow), informal consultation interview.
26 Anita Balakrishna.
community legal workers, and other staff combine first-language knowledge with in-depth understanding of the legal and other issues facing their communities. Some use interpreters to supplement their in-house language knowledge.
Specialty clinics in Ontario include the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Law Clinic, the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, the Centre for Spanish-Speaking Peoples, the Nishnawbe-Aski Legal Services Corporation (and other clinics serving Aboriginal peoples), the African Canadian Legal Clinic, and French-language clinics. ARCH Disability Law Centre is a specialty legal aid clinic dedicated to defending and advancing the equality rights of people with disabilities.
Some of these clinics have difficulty fulfilling their broad mandates (in some cases, provincewide) with limited resources. In addition to serving clients directly, they play important roles in advocacy, test-case litigation, training, and outreach. They also work collaboratively with many other agencies serving their communities.
We heard recommendations to increase support to specialty clinics to enhance their ability to provide direct service to their target clients and allow them to help build the capacity of other legal and non-legal organizations. Suggestions included giving specialty clinics a greater role in developing public legal education materials, resourcing them to undertake wider outreach, and increasing province-wide capacity through hotlines housed, for example, within specialty clinics.
Hiring practices Many US legal organizations emphasize language skills in their hiring policies as a way to improve direct service in other languages. Some also offer language skill testing and training for staff who have some language skills but are not fluent enough to serve clients. In some cases, they tie language skills to compensation.
Other ideas included incentives for law offices to hire bilingual articling students and lawyers and focused recruitment to increase the number of bilingual lawyers available to provide lowcost or pro bono services. According to a 2005 Law Society of Upper Canada report, however, sole practitioners and small firms provide virtually all of the legal services in languages other than English, French, and Italian. 27 Providing pro bono or legal aid services or hiring articling students is more difficult for these practices than it is for larger firms.
Accreditation of internationally trained lawyers Internationally trained lawyers proficient in languages other than English or French, once licensed to practise in Ontario, would help increase the pool of lawyers who could serve clients in their first languages. However, internationally trained lawyers face difficulties in having their credentials, experience, and degrees evaluated, and in completing independent studies or further education at a law school. There are not nearly enough places in Ontario law schools to meet the demand, and since internationally trained lawyers are typically part-time students,
Sole Practitioner and Small Firm Task Force, p. 8.
they do not have access to the student and career services at the law faculties where they study.
There are recent promising developments to reduce some of the barriers and provide more support tailored to the specific needs of these professionals. In September 2008, the Law Society of Upper Canada amended its rules to allow internationally trained lawyers to apply for an abridgement of articles if they have worked in another jurisdiction for more than 10 months (as opposed to several years). This change means that fewer candidates will be required to secure articling positions—a particularly challenging barrier.
In addition, the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, in partnership with the Law Society of Upper Canada, the National Committee on Accreditation, and Osgoode Hall Law School, is working on creating a comprehensive bridging program for internationally trained lawyers.
Areas under discussion for the program include academic programs, cultural fluency training, job search skills and support, and work placement opportunities.
Attracting bilingual law students
Student legal aid programs are an important source of legal help for low-income persons. Law schools in Ontario are becoming more diverse, and as law school populations become more reflective of Ontario, the linguistic capacity of legal organizations will correspondingly increase.
One strategy for increasing the supply of lawyers who can serve people in their first language is to broaden the pool of law students fluent in the languages in high demand. Establishing bursaries for bilingual law students was one suggested way to accelerate this process.
Through summer placements, student pro bono programs, and articling positions, law students with expertise in non-official languages can help legal organizations provide first language services and enhance their outreach capacity. For example, some US specialty clinics hire bilingual law students to staff hotlines and refer callers to legal service organizations or pro bono attorneys.
Referral to bilingual legal practitioners Another strategy to facilitate access to legal practitioners who can provide service in clients’ first languages is to provide better tools to support referrals. A recurring suggestion in our consultations was a comprehensive directory to assist both legal and non-legal organizations to identify lawyers by proficiency in non-official languages and by area of expertise. The suggestion often came from associations representing lawyers from specific linguistic
Consultation submission, Pro Bono Students Canada.
communities, accompanied by an offer to assist in compiling the directory. There are some good examples of directories that could form the basis for a comprehensive directory, like the Hispanic Ontario Lawyers Association’s directory of Spanish-speaking lawyers and Reach Canada’s directory of lawyers in the Ottawa region who will provide clients with disabilities, including Deaf clients, with up to three hours of free consultation. In its legal referral service, the Law Society uses data on legal professionals who have indicated that they speak additional languages, but this information is not publicly available.
Multilingual materials Various types of organizations produce multilingual materials that community organizations use to support in-person service or outreach activities. These include government, settlement agencies, specialty clinics, and legal and community organizations that focus on legal topics of interest to vulnerable populations.
The complexities and cost of translating legal materials usually require a focus on the most urgent topics and the most important information within these topics. Consultation participants often mentioned the need for improved translation capacity to allow organizations to produce materials on more topics and in more languages. Ideas for improving translation capacity included setting up a translation fund, enhancing or developing community college translation programs with an emphasis on legal translation, developing rosters of qualified translators, and creating a multilingual glossary of legal terms.
Community Legal Education Ontario’s Six Languages project produced text and audio materials, on six high-need legal topics, in Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin and Simplified Chinese), Somali, Spanish, Tamil, and Urdu. The text and audio versions are both available on line. The Six Languages project has generated information on how to produce high-quality multilingual public legal education materials. The approach involved focus groups from the target community, plain-language translators, and bilingual lawyers to check translations. An advisory group evaluated the text translations and focus groups evaluated the audio versions for ease of understanding and appropriateness of the background music.
Many jurisdictions have focused recently on creating online repositories or portals for multilingual legal education materials. Portals allow agencies to more easily access materials, identify needs and gaps, and avoid duplicating high-quality work already available through partner agencies.
Alternative formats Multilingual text materials will always be important in helping organizations to provide legal information and services to clients. Clients with limited or no literacy also need audio and other formats to enable them to access information independently. Presenting information in different ways is also important because stress has a significant effect on the ability to retain information. Community Legal Education Ontario’s research indicates that individuals under stress must receive the same type of information at least five times in order to retain it.29 Service organizations such as the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and The Canadian Hearing Society engage in case-management and advocacy and need appropriate legal information for their clients. As we learned in our consultations, the lack of accessible plain language materials can pose significant barriers for these clients.
Basic legal materials translated into American Sign Language and langue des signes québécoise, and made available on DVD and on line, would help to alleviate these barriers.
Materials in alternative formats, such as Braille, audio, and large print, and the transmission of documents electronically to clients who have the specialized software to convert them into the formats they can use, would improve access to legal information for people who are blind or have low vision. It is also critical for all organizations providing online legal information to ensure that their websites meet accessibility standards and guidelines. The Canadian National Institute for the Blind, for example, offers a web accessibility consulting service, including website audits, website certification, and seminars and training for web professionals.
Special outreach If people are unaware of their legal rights or do not know that help is available, they are unlikely to make use of legal clinics and other available services. Connecting with people who are isolated by language, culture (including religious rules and expectations and power imbalance within families), and other factors (such as domestic abuse) requires special outreach efforts tailored to the target communities.
Individual communities have pointed out that cultural factors can compound the problems of language barriers. As an example, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women has noted that, “Muslim women tend to be disengaged from the civic and political life of the country. They are also more likely to be absent from the labour market and tend to be more socially engaged within Muslim communities and less so in broader Canadian society.” 30 Settlement and community organizations have developed innovative approaches to outreach, including workshops, mini-clinics and the use of multilingual community media discussed below. Some place or post multilingual legal information notices in locations where their client groups are most likely to see them, such as health clinics, food banks and grocery stores, food hampers, and community bulletin boards. These efforts convey the message that help is available without placing the person receiving the information at risk.
Workshops and mini-clinics Another successful outreach strategy is to conduct workshops or legal mini-clinics in the languages of highest need in a community. Many organizations in Ontario and elsewhere do Community Legal Education Ontario, p. 9.