«Karen Cohl and George Thomson December 2008 Connecting Across Language and Distance: Linguistic and Rural Access to Legal Information and Services ...»
• Legal Aid Ontario’s staff law offices specializing in criminal, family or refugee law provide legal services where private certificate lawyers may not be available
• The Ontario Human Rights Legal Support Centre provides information and support for persons with human rights complaints
• At Family Law Information Centres in family court locations, members of the public can attend legal information sessions and obtain materials about separation, divorce and other family law matters, and an Advice Lawyer from Legal Aid Ontario will provide general legal information or, in specific circumstances, legal advice
• Organizations like Justicia for Migrant Workers and the Centre for Spanish-Speaking Peoples do special outreach and employment law work with migrant workers in their catchment areas
• Family Legal Education for Women is a project that provides accessible information to help vulnerable or isolated women understand and exercise their rights in family law
• The Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic provides free and integrated legal, counselling, interpretation, information and referral services for women who have experienced violence
• The JUSTICE@work employment law practice, led by the Community Legal Clinic of Simcoe, Haliburton, Kawartha Lakes, provides free legal advice and some brief services to all workers and full representation to those who qualify on the basis of income or disadvantage
• The Office of the Worker Adviser, an independent agency of the Ontario Ministry of Labour, provides free services to non-unionized injured workers and their survivors in workplace insurance matters.
In parts of the US, access to justice commissions, typically created by the state supreme court, play an important role in assessing the civil legal needs of low-income people and overseeing initiatives to meet those needs. They have also undertaken projects to make courts and other parts of the legal system more accessible to people with limited English proficiency.
The Ontario Civil Legal Needs Project, currently under way, will provide valuable additional insights into priority needs in Ontario. The Law Society of Upper Canada and Pro Bono Law Ontario are leading this project. The goal is to identify the obstacles low-income and middleincome Ontarians face in obtaining meaningful access to justice. The three phases of the project will be a large-scale survey with low-income and middle-income Ontarians, focus groups with front-line legal and social service providers, and mapping of legal service resources available to low-income and middle-income Ontarians. The project will assess both the legal and social service components of civil legal needs and identify strategies to meet those needs.
Where people go for legal information, advice and representation Until you need help, you don’t know anything about it, and then you have to scramble for it. OWEN SOUND CONSULTATION Legal information It is not easy to identify with precision where our target groups now go for essential legal information. It is, we think, risky to make generalizations based on broad surveys or research that relates to the general population or to other fields such as health information.
One exception is the recent consultation conducted by the Family Legal Education for Women project, in which participants were asked where they now seek family law information. Since the organization’s mandate is to bring family law information, in multiple languages, to isolated or vulnerable women, the responses may bring us closer to understanding the sources of legal
information for some in our target populations:
• word-of-mouth, advice from other women in social circles
• local women’s centres, shelters
• community centres
• physicians, health clinics
• legal aid clinics
• the Internet (google, 211 toronto)
• and to a much lesser extent the police, the courts and Service Canada51 Family Legal Education for Women concluded that, “where family law issues are concerned the preferred resources or contact points are those that are private, anonymous/confidential, accessible, credible and trustworthy, free or low cost, and risk-free.”52 We heard similar conclusions from community workers during our consultations.
The Internet One study suggests that most people in rural Ontario look to doctors and the Internet for information about their health concerns (60 per cent and 59 per cent, respectively). 53 This research did not focus on the low-income population, and there are other reasons why seeking
legal information from lawyers and the Internet is not analogous:
Family Legal Education for Women, p. 8.
Ibid., p. 9.
53 Roma M. Harris, C. Nadine Wathen and Jana M. Fear.
• People are quite likely to realize that they have a medical problem and much less likely to recognize that they have a legal problem
• Doctors are more readily accessible than lawyers are, and the cost of consulting a doctor is covered by OHIP
• Useful, accessible health information is currently more readily available on the Internet than is legal information.
Owing to barriers described in Chapters 2 and 3, legal professionals and the Internet are less accessible for both linguistic minorities and residents of rural and remote areas. However, the availability of Internet access and web-based legal information is improving. This is sure to make the Internet more useful, over time, as a means of seeking legal information.
A clear theme that emerged through our project was the need to foster more formal relationships between legal and non-legal service providers to help community organizations (“trusted intermediaries”) to provide better legal information and referral for vulnerable clients.
It is common for both linguistic minorities and people in rural or remote areas to turn to the organizations they know and trust when they have a problem. In the course of helping clients, community workers are often the first to recognize that a problem has a legal component and to provide basic information or a referral.
Trusted intermediaries include organizations that focus on social services, services to people with disabilities, immigrant settlement, health care, education, advocacy, or a particular faith or ethno-cultural group. They also include agencies that serve the public generally, such as libraries, community centres, information and referral services, and hotlines.
Community organizations know the needs of their communities and clients and are often experts in outreach. Particularly in urban areas, community agencies may also have staff and volunteers who can serve people in their first language. Collaboration with settlement agencies and other organizations has become one of the most important ways for legal services to reach communities of non-official language speakers. The Law Courts Education Society of BC recently announced a new consortium of immigrant settlement and public legal education and
Gayla Reid and John Malcolmson, Voices from the Field, p. 93.
information agencies to create a collaborative and coordinated approach for providing legal information to new immigrants.
During our consultations, community workers spoke about challenges many organizations face, including a lack of core funding, high staff turnover, and reliance on volunteers. They also emphasized the need for additional resources, tools, and training to enhance their capacity to provide legal information to clients. Many community organizations already use the public legal education materials that are available (particularly on line) to provide basic legal information to their clients. Some have also formed partnerships with legal clinics in their communities to receive workshops and training for staff.
Suggestions for additional tools included a hotline staffed by legal professionals to support front-line workers in non-legal organizations; a dedicated legal resource person, either a lawyer or a community legal worker, to be shared among community agencies in a given rural area;
and more training on legal issues. Some suggested that e-learning modules would be a practical and cost-effective approach to offering this training to community organizations.
The Community Law School (Sarnia-Lambton) provides one model for enhancing the capacity of community organizations. It provides workshops on a variety of social welfare law topics to nonprofit community organizations, social service agencies, and low-income citizen groups. In conjunction with Lambton College, it also offers online courses for “lay advocates,” often frontline agency workers, so that they can help their clients learn about and exercise their legal rights. The Community Law School has worked with the College to keep the cost of its courses as low as possible to enable agencies and individuals with limited funding to take advantage of them.
Other sources In some cases, people receive legal information when they are not actively seeking it but an organization is actively reaching out to them. Public legal education organizations often use community media for this purpose, and, as mentioned in Chapter 2, legal information is being included in some ESL curricula and other educational programming. In the case of vulnerable populations likely to have specific legal problems, organizations also conduct the kinds of targeted outreach described in Chapters 2 and 3.
Legal advice and representation Deciding whether to seek legal assistance With or without access to information, many people choose not to seek legal assistance. A 2006 nationwide telephone survey asked 6,665 Canadian adults about aspects of legal
problems, including how they dealt with them:
• Handled problem on own: 44.0%
• Assistance – non-legal: 22.1%
• Took no action – reason: 16.5%
• Assistance – legal: 11.7%
• Took no action – not important enough: 5.7% 55
Respondents gave a number of reasons for not taking action:
Thinking that nothing could be done, being uncertain about their rights, and not knowing what to do accounted for almost half of all responses (46.4 per cent). Not knowing their rights made up just over 10 per cent of all reasons for not taking action. The other responses suggest that many people require support to overcome fear, anxiety and the practical difficulties that may prevent action. 56 A report that discussed the survey noted that, “most of the responses suggest the potential value of initial legal information and advice to assist the person in understanding the nature of the problem and the courses of action that may be open.”57 Although the survey did not focus on our target groups, it is nonetheless instructive to see reasons why people choose not to act on their legal problems. The impact of the decision not to take action is also more evident when legal difficulties combine with other life challenges.
Another report focusing on civil justice problems and disability and health status found that Ab Currie, The Legal Problems of Everyday Life, p. 55.
Ibid., p. 56.
57 Ibid., p. 57.
Canadians with disabilities are more likely to have persistent and unresolved legal problems, and that their problems are more likely to get worse. 58 Sources of legal advice and representation Depending on the nature of the legal problem, low-income Ontario residents may consult a community legal clinic, staff office, advice counsel, or duty counsel within the Legal Aid Ontario family of services. Service providers within these bodies include lawyers, community legal workers, and paralegals.
People with legal problems can also seek assistance from legal organizations that are similar to community legal clinics but not part of the Legal Aid Ontario network, law school services, private lawyers, or paralegals. Low-income clients are unlikely to be able to afford private legal services except under a legal aid certificate or on a pro bono basis. As mentioned earlier, some people choose not to proceed to resolve their legal issues or choose to attempt resolution without legal assistance.
People who do seek help from a legal practitioner may obtain a referral from a friend, family member or a community organization. They may also use the Law Society’s lawyer referral service, which also provides 30 minutes of summary legal advice from a lawyer at a cost of $6.
New approaches to support people who need legal information or services Chapters 2 and 3 highlight current approaches and new ideas for addressing the barriers to legal information and services faced by low-income or vulnerable persons who do not speak an official language or who live in a rural or remote area. Our research and consultations also identified two broad trends or approaches, which we considered in terms of their potential impact on our target groups. The first is the use of broadly based holistic services. The second is the development of self-help services and supports for persons who choose to address their legal issues without formal legal assistance. We heard about the value and necessity of both approaches in our consultations.
Holistic services Problems often do not occur in isolation. They occur in clusters in which certain problems can sometimes serve as triggers for other problems. 59 Ab Currie, Civil Justice Problems and the Disability and Health Status of Canadians, p. 11.
Ab Currie,The Legal Problems of Everyday Life, p. 42.
Problems often occur in “clusters,” with one problem triggering a cascade of other problems.
The initial problem may or may not be law-related, but without early intervention, it may trigger further problems, legal or otherwise. Individuals with a multitude of problems are often subject to numerous referrals tied to specialist institutions—a “silo” approach that can lead to “referral fatigue” and leaves many problems unresolved. 60 The existing trust in and reliance on community organizations makes them natural partners with legal service providers for a holistic approach to multiple problems. Just as legal problems emerge when people approach community organizations for help with other problems, nonlegal problems become evident to legal professionals in the course of dealing with legal issues.