«Karen Cohl and George Thomson December 2008 Connecting Across Language and Distance: Linguistic and Rural Access to Legal Information and Services ...»
Municipalities with populations of less than 100,000 are also included in the definition. By this definition, about 4.3 million people lived in rural southern Ontario and about half a million people lived in rural northern Ontario in 2006.
In general, “remote communities” are defined by their distance from urban centres. In Ontario, by at least two definitions, regions lying entirely above the 49th parallel can be considered “remote.” Within the health care field, there have been efforts to develop indices that more accurately reflect the particular challenges of service delivery in rural areas. The Ontario Medical
Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry.
Association has developed a “Rurality Index of Ontario.” This assigns points based on a number of factors, including travel time to nearest referral centres, community population, number of active general practitioners, population to general practitioner ratio, hospital capacities, social indicators and weather conditions. The index is used in several government funding formulas aimed at increasing the level of rural medical service. Such an index, adapted to legal services, would likely provide a better picture of the extent of the need in rural areas than population figures alone do.
By all definitions, Ontario’s urban regions are growing faster than its rural regions. There has been significant population growth in rural areas near cities, but according to one projection, 90 per cent of the population increase from 2005 to 2020 will have occurred in urban areas.34 Although the number of immigrants in rural areas of Canada is growing, the number of new immigrants in rural areas is still small. 35 This is not surprising, since immigrants tend to settle in urban areas, which have sizeable immigrant communities and networks and greater availability of jobs and services.
Thus, for most of rural Ontario, language is not a significant obstacle to accessing services, with some notable exceptions: Aboriginal peoples who speak neither English nor French and live in rural or remote areas, migrant workers, many of whom are Spanish-speaking (about 15,000 migrant workers live in Ontario for up to eight months each year), 36 and a significant German-speaking population. 37
Barriers to obtaining legal information and services
Distance and declining services At The Ontario Rural Council roundtable held for this project, participants identified distance as the number one barrier to obtaining legal information and services in rural or remote areas of the province. Legal service providers spoke about their rural clients walking an hour or more, or hitchhiking, to keep appointments with legal clinics or to attend administrative or court proceedings.
Public transportation is rare or non-existent in many rural communities. In some places, community transportation programs exist but are targeted to specific populations such as people who are elderly or who have disabilities. Even for people with private transportation, distances, poor roads, weather conditions, and the price of gas can be obstacles to accessing services and can influence every part of daily life.
David Sparling and Delia Bucknell.
36 Harald Bauder, Kerry Preibisch, Siobhan Sutherland and Kerry Nash.
Due to distances and weaker economies of scale, rural services often cost more. With declining populations, many government and commercial services have moved from small towns to regional centres, making the challenges of distance even greater for many rural residents. One study conducted profiles of 22 rural sites across Canada, tracking service availability over time.
The study sampled only four sites in Ontario, but the trend toward moving services (including legal, transportation, and community services) from local communities to regional centres was clear. 38 The lack of services affects communities and groups in different ways. For rural women experiencing domestic violence, the smallness of the community may create personal conflicts and make it difficult to maintain confidentiality. The lack of childcare and transportation may make it impossible to get away to see a lawyer; and the lack of shelters and support services may make it impossible to leave. Specialty services and expertise may also be lacking to deal with the legal and other needs of youth, the elderly, and people with disabilities. For example, the critical shortage of sign language interpreters (discussed in Chapter 2) is even more acute in rural communities, especially in northern Ontario.
Income and other factors Compared with urban residents, rural residents tend to have lower education and literacy levels, lower incomes, fewer job opportunities and more seasonal employment, more housing in need of repair, and poorer health and access to health care.39 All of these factors can contribute to poverty.
As the Senate report on rural poverty put it, people who are poor in rural areas “experience poverty very differently than their urban counterparts.” Distance, isolation, lack of transportation, limited services and the facts of rural life exacerbate the impact of poverty, particularly on people who are most vulnerable. Consultation participants noted that many rural barriers also affect people who may be considered “middle income.” Some rural residents may own their homes but have extremely limited cash flow. (One rural client we learned about owned her home outright, but supported herself and her four children on $11,000 a year from child tax credits and minimal support payments from her ex-husband.) The traditional cohesiveness of rural communities, while providing an informal safety net, can also contribute to the hidden nature of rural poverty. The Senate report found that the rural Canadian ethic of self-sufficiency can make rural Canadians reluctant to seek help when they need it. There can also be a stigma attached to seeking legal help in a community where everyone appears to know everyone else’s business.
As we heard in our consultations, intimidation or fear (of the legal system and legal language) can prevent many people from seeking legal help. There can also be a “cultural” barrier between people in rural communities and service providers located in cities. For example, one Greg Halseth and Laura Ryser.
Ausra Burns, David Bruce and Amanda Marlin.
participant told us of a social worker who did not believe that a rural client could not drive to Kingston in the winter because his wood stove would go out and the sole water pipe would freeze before he got home.
The impacts of poverty on the ability to access legal services may be much greater in rural areas. We heard about clients of rural community legal clinics who have limited or no telephone service, forcing them to rely on neighbours who may be kilometres away. The effects are even more severe in remote communities than they are in rural communities where resources may be available in nearby urban centres.
Supply of legal services There is limited current research on the need for and supply of legal services in Ontario communities. The 2005 Report of the Law Society of Upper Canada Task Force on Small Firms and Sole Practitioners found that 80 per cent of rural lawyers are small and sole practitioners. 40 They are aging as a group and tend to have high overhead and other financial and administrative costs, which limits the amount of legal aid and pro bono work they are willing to take on. Many rural small and sole practitioners (64 per cent) identified shortages of legal services in their areas, with the largest gaps in family law, lawyers willing to accept legal aid, and litigators.
Where legal services exist in rural areas, service providers face the challenges of large service areas, isolated clients, lack of public awareness of their services, and difficulty recruiting staff, including clerks, researchers, students, and support staff. In remote areas with few lawyers, lawyers are also more likely to encounter conflict of interest issues.
The digital divide The “digital divide” remains a significant obstacle to using communications technologies in Ontario, notwithstanding the significant efforts of governments and others to resolve the technological challenges. Broadband access is simply not available in many rural areas. A 2005 Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission study (cited in the Senate report on rural poverty) found that, at that time, 47 per cent of Canadian communities, mostly rural and small town, did not have broadband access. 41 The Senate report confirmed that there is still limited and spotty broadband connectivity in rural areas. Distance, sight lines, topography, and availability of high-speed backbones are obstacles to wider availability.
Even where broadband service is commercially available, many people do not have home computers or may be unable to afford the service. Many remote communities have group or organizational access through specific access points and community networks, including Aboriginal networks in the north. Through Industry Canada’s Community Access Program, free access to high-speed Internet service is available in some schools, libraries and community Sole Practitioner and Small Firm Task Force.
Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry.
centres. However, significant travel time may still be required and the lack of privacy may be a problem for people dealing with legal issues.
The 2005 Canadian Internet use survey analyzed personal (non-business) Internet use, looking at a number of variables. 42 Income was found to have a strong positive correlation with Internet use; people with some post-secondary education were about three times more likely to use the Internet than those with none were; and people in urban areas were about 1.5 times more likely to use the Internet compared with those living in rural areas.
Concerns about the limits of technological solutions for rural and remote communities were echoed in our consultations, and the limits are not confined to Internet access. We were told that many rural residents have limited or no access to telephones and long-distance or toll-free service and limited or no access to cell phones (vast parts of the north have no cellular networks). For those with limited resources, pay-as-you-go long distance access is the norm, but many services, such as 1-800 toll-free numbers, are accessible only after long waiting times.
Internet and other text-based solutions are of limited use to people who do not have the literacy skills to use them or to use them effectively. Literacy was identified in our research and consultations as a barrier for many rural clients seeking legal information or services. The Ontario Rural Council roundtable identified literacy problems broadly, including not knowing how to find information in a phone book, not knowing where to look for information, having trouble expressing a legal problem, or having trouble understanding legal information.
Research and surveys have also highlighted these problems. As an example, the BC Rural Women’s Project examined rural women’s experiences of poverty and access to communication technology through community dialogues with women in six regions of British Columbia in 2002 and 2003. 43 The women who participated had concerns related to both telephone and Internet service. They felt that the increasing reliance on the Internet to access resources, information, and educational opportunities, and to facilitate communications, creates serious challenges for women with low incomes.
Over time, these technological challenges will recede and innovative solutions that facilitate access to technology for people in rural and remote communities will become much more realistic and practical to implement. However, consultation participants stressed the risk of making premature assumptions about what is possible under present conditions.
Ideas for overcoming barriers This section describes ideas for overcoming barriers of access to legal information and services for low-income or vulnerable people living in rural or remote areas. We have drawn the ideas Larry McKeown, Anthony Noce and Peter Czerny.
from suggestions made by consultation participants and from our research on practices here and elsewhere.
The ideas we heard about can be organized under three main themes:
• Providing legal services in rural locations
• Conducting special outreach to clients who are most vulnerable and isolated
• Using technology to bridge the distance.
Another key strategy recommended through the project was to enhance the capacity of nonlegal organizations to act as trusted intermediaries between rural clients and legal service providers. This is discussed in Chapter 4.
Providing legal services in rural locations One way to increase access to legal services in rural and remote areas is to offer incentives or supports to legal professionals to practise in these communities. Some jurisdictions in the US, Australia, and the UK, for example, have made efforts to increase the number of rural private lawyers doing poverty law, legal aid, and pro bono work through various financial incentives.
These have included support for operating and facility costs, free access to continuing legal education, and loan forgiveness for recent law school graduates. These are similar to the incentives offered in Ontario for health care providers to practise in rural and remote areas.
Additional supports that could be offered to attract lawyers to rural practice or to make legal aid or pro bono work more feasible for rural practitioners include peer-support networks, practice-management advice, research services, and mentoring.
Projects in the US and Australia have explored offering the pro bono services of urban lawyers to rural clients. These projects usually involve a rural legal aid office, local charity group, or community legal service provider as a local sponsor and point of contact. Urban partners can include bar associations, law firm pro bono programs, and government or corporate in-house counsel, as well as legal aid or community legal services. Projects are usually confined to a small number of legal subjects targeted to local needs and include supports for pro bono volunteers (e.g., training and resource materials, mentorship, litigation support, and research assistance where possible).