«Karen Cohl and George Thomson December 2008 Connecting Across Language and Distance: Linguistic and Rural Access to Legal Information and Services ...»
Another approach is to mobilize law students to assist in providing legal services in underserved areas. For example, Pro Bono Students Canada has a long-distance placement program to place law students in community organizations and law clinics in rural areas.
The following are other ideas that came up in our consultations:
• Provide additional staff resources to satellite offices of legal aid clinics serving large catchment areas
• Establish a widely publicized, centralized toll-free line for obtaining pro bono assistance in Ontario
• Recruit lawyers and law students from rural or remote communities to provide pro bono services to their home communities on a temporary basis
• Connect law students from urban law schools with rural residents in need of legal information and services
• Create mobile legal clinics staffed by lawyers, community legal workers and law students (similar to mobile health services in the province).
Special outreach Given the low population densities of rural areas and the additional barriers of poverty and a lack of public transportation, it is clear that outreach must be a component of any legal services delivery plan. 44 Outreach can include workshops and public legal education to address specific legal topics or target groups.
Several projects in the US and Canada conduct legal outreach aimed at migrant agricultural workers, who often face linguistic barriers along with rural isolation. One example is a partnership between the Industrial Accidents Victims Group of Ontario and Justicia for Migrant Workers, which delivers workshops and advice clinics in community locations (and develops Spanish and English public legal education materials for migrant farm workers in rural Ontario).
The Indigenous Farm Worker Project of the Oregon Law Center has created audiotapes and illustrated handouts to serve similar target groups in a number of languages.
Some projects have used libraries as public legal education resource centres in rural areas and have provided training and resources to the participating libraries. A Canadian example is the BC Courthouse Library Society’s LawMatters project. It plans to provide public libraries with bibliographies of recommended current resources, research guides on specific legal topics, training for public library staff, reference and referral support, and financial assistance to purchase appropriate legal resources. Others have co-located legal information services with existing medical or other non-legal priority services.
Participants at The Ontario Rural Council roundtable discussion emphasized the need to bring legal information to places people already go and to provide information through people and services they trust. They suggested using Friendship Centres, band offices, Mennonite Central Committee offices, ethnic media, places of worship, health locations (doctors, dentists, health centres, pharmacies), Liquor Control Board of Ontario outlets, grocery stores, food banks, and other similar locations.
Other outreach ideas came up in our consultations:
• Put up posters about legal issues and where to find out more in libraries, post offices, courthouses, and other public places
• Issue news columns on legal topics of interest to the region, like the bimonthly “Legalese” column in the Frontenac News of Sharbot Lake
• Use community radio and television more extensively to provide information on legal rights and services available in the community
• Use the Ontario government’s ServiceOntario network as a partner for distributing legal information and holding meetings.
Using technology to bridge the distance One of the challenges is generalized versus personalized information.
Generalized information needs to be available 24/7. But people still need access to a lawyer to see how it applies to their situation. OWEN SOUND
CONSULTATIONThe importance of in-person assistance for vulnerable clients, for both linguistic and rural access, was a recurring theme in our consultations. Our research supported that theme. For example, BC’s Social Planning and Research Council interviewed individuals involved in poverty law services for its 2004 report, and the respondents consistently considered it a priority to obtain information from an advocate or lawyer in person rather than on line or over the telephone. 45 Although technology cannot replace in-person support and is not accessible to everyone, it is a natural solution to providing access to legal information and some legal services to a broader audience over distances. Our project focused on three distance methods: telephone hotlines, delivering legal information and some forms of live or “just-in-time” assistance on the Internet (e.g., emails and online forums), and videoconferencing.
Hotlines Legal hotlines offering information, referral, and limited service have been set up in many locations in the US, the UK, and Australia. In Canada, legal hotlines exist in Alberta and BC and are emerging in Ontario. The Ministry of the Attorney General’s Justice Ontario service includes a multilingual legal information hotline, and Legal Aid Ontario is developing one.
A hotline that provides general information may also be used to convey legal information and to refer callers to legal services. Findhelp 211 is an example of a general information and referral hotline that covers many topics, including legal issues. This service is being expanded, with government support, to cover the whole province.
Legal hotlines are most effective when there is some form of follow-up or ongoing support for those who use them. Many clients, particularly the most vulnerable, may not be capable or confident enough to use information or advice from a hotline on their own. 46 Equally important to the hotline’s effectiveness is the ability to make good referrals to the appropriate legal service or professional. Recorded legal information can be of some value, but people who need Andrea Long and Anne Beveridge.
See Focus Consultants and Robert Echols and Julia Gordon.
the information are usually eager to connect with someone, or with some added material, to help them apply the information to their own circumstances. We also heard that it can be difficult for a centralized hotline to provide specific information about local circumstances, programs and services.
Internet Public legal information on websites can benefit people who need basic legal information, regardless of where they live. However, as we heard in our consultations, individuals often need help to navigate websites and understand online legal information. Community organizations also use websites to get basic information to pass on to their clients. For example, the CLEONet portal in Ontario is primarily aimed at community organizations and social service workers who need information on legal topics.
A few projects in Canada and the US are experimenting with the use of email or online forums for legal advice. The Nishnawbe-Aski Legal Services/Pro Bono Law Ontario “Ask a Lawyer” project, for example, allows community legal workers to consult with pro bono lawyers specializing in a wide range of areas through queries on a website. Many legal information and service providers in the US use “Live Help” or similar software, which allows users to communicate with advisors via instant messaging for assistance in navigating the websites. In British Columbia, a variety of Internet applications are being used, particularly in support of self-help. (See discussion in Chapter 4.) Despite the digital divide, some consultation participants told us that Internet use is increasing and is becoming more acceptable than previously supposed, as more and more remote communities are getting high-speed Internet access.
Videoconferencing Videoconferencing offers potential for a more personal, full-service approach to distance service than hotlines or websites can deliver. It is not a universal solution, however. It is not ideal for vulnerable clients who need in-person support, and it is not suited to all legal purposes (for example, reviewing a large volume of documents). Videoconferencing also requires travel to an access point. For client interviews, a private space and a local assistant are needed. The wider the range of other, non-legal services available through the video access point, the more likely people are to use the service to obtain legal advice. Combining services increases the usefulness of the system and decreases reluctance to use it. 47 Combined services enhance privacy because nobody knows exactly which service people plan to use when they enter the video access point.
As the technology moves to low-cost hardware and standard broadband Internet connections, videoconferencing is becoming increasingly ubiquitous. Webcam quality and reliability were problems in early experiments in other jurisdictions, but good low-cost cameras are becoming available. Several jurisdictions are now using videoconferencing to deliver legal information
Legal Services Commission [UK].
and advice. In Ontario, the Centre de santé communautaire Hamilton/Niagara received a grant from the Law Foundation to establish virtual links between francophone lawyers in Toronto and Ottawa and clients in Hamilton. The Western Canada Society to Access Justice organization operates pro bono clinics via videoconferencing in the remote areas of British Columbia.
Videoconferencing is also being used more generally to provide training or specialist advice, or to link services such as the various legal aid offices across a sparsely populated US state.
Montana Legal Services Association shares a videoconference network and access points with the state court system. An evaluation report suggests that this program used videoconferencing successfully for internal meetings, staff training, self-help clinics, court appearances, and attorney-client meetings, although in the last two categories, the number of instances was low. 48 In Ontario, the government’s Justice Video network operates about 200 videoconferencing sites across the province, with installations in many court, corrections, and police locations.
Initially, the network was used for short bail and remand hearings. Now it is beginning to be used for additional purposes such as case conferences, remote witness and expert testimony, sign language interpretation, solicitor-client hearings, training sessions, and meetings. In addition, Legal Aid Ontario uses the network to take legal aid applications from clients in some correctional facilities.
Ontario also has an extensive medical videoconferencing network (Ontario Telemedicine Network) and videoconference facilities for sign language interpretation at The Canadian Hearing Society’s offices across the province.
Other ideas about videoconferencing came up in our consultations:
• Make videoconferencing available at community centres, libraries, post offices, and health care facilities and other access points
• Use videoconferencing to deliver sign language interpreting services to the north
• Use videoconferencing to connect community clinics with their satellite offices
• Use videoconferencing for pro bono lawyers to provide legal services or training sessions for rural individuals and community organizations
• Use videoconferencing for client meetings with legal professionals, with travel assistance to get to video access points, assistance in transmitting documents, and onsite technical help.
Chapter 4: The Search for Legal Information and Services Front end information and assistance has been shown to help empower clients with the means to resolve their problems and to help prevent their problems from multiplying or cascading. 49 Before we could begin to propose new directions for access to legal information and services, it
was important that we understand the current situation:
• What areas of law are priority needs for our target populations?
• Where do they go for legal information and referral or for advice and representation?
• What new approaches or trends have emerged that support people who need legal information or services?
Priority areas of need During our research and consultations, we heard a consistent message about the areas of law where the need for information and service is greatest for low-income linguistic minorities and
persons living in rural or remote communities. Many areas of law are common to both groups:
consumer protection, criminal justice, employment, family and child protection, health care and mental health, housing, human rights, immigration and refugee status, and income support. As would be expected, immigration and refugees issues are more prevalent among linguistic minorities. Basic information about the legal system and the legal process was a high priority for both groups, no matter what the area of law.
The areas of law that Legal Aid Ontario’s network of services 50 and other specialty legal and non-legal organizations address confirm the validity of this list and underscore the urgent
• Some Legal Aid Ontario community legal clinics are dedicated to specific areas of law (housing, income security, workplace issues, HIV and AIDS) or specific population groups (Aboriginals, seniors, children and youth, persons with disabilities, African Canadians;
Chinese and Southeast Asian, South Asian, and Spanish-speaking communities) Michael Trebilcock, p. 104.
“Legal Aid is available to low income individuals and disadvantaged communities for a variety of legal problems, including criminal matters, family disputes, immigration and refugee hearings and poverty law issues such as landlord/tenant disputes, disability support and family benefits payments.” Legal Aid Ontario, Legal Aid Services.
According to the Poverty Law Advocacy Network of Canada, “Poverty law services are those that enable poor people and marginalized communities to advance legal interests and protections for their most fundamental needs, such as housing, food and income security.”