«Karen Cohl and George Thomson December 2008 Connecting Across Language and Distance: Linguistic and Rural Access to Legal Information and Services ...»
The United Kingdom’s Citizens Advice Bureaus are a well-established example of a holistic approach. These bureaus provide help with a wide range of non-legal issues along with legal information and assistance. Some of the more than 500 bureaus are located in health centres and other community locations. Bureau services are not restricted to vulnerable people in need and there is no means test for obtaining legal advice.
The way in which legal and community services have evolved over time in Ontario likely makes this kind of major shift less feasible here. It is more realistic to think of building partnerships between specialized services rather than replacing them with multi-service organizations.
However, some Ontario agencies are recognizing the value of combining services that are obviously related. For example, the Francophone Community Health Centre Hamilton/Niagara, a multi-service agency providing health and social services to French-speaking clients, also includes a legal clinic for refugee issues. Others, such as Flemingdon Community Legal Services, are part of a partnership of neighbourhood agencies.
The Family Legal Health Program at The Hospital for Sick Children is a new program in which low-income child patients and their families receive free legal services and advocacy in addition to health and social services. Social workers and medical staff receive training that enables them to spot legal issues that affect patients and their families. The legal services are provided pro bono or through legal aid. This program is a partnership between the hospital, Pro Bono Law Ontario, Legal Aid Ontario, and two law firms. 61 Michael Trebilcock, p. vi.
The two law firms are McMillan Binch Mendelsohn and Torkin Manes Cohen Arbus.
Self-help services Self-help applies not only to going to court but to all levels of the resolution of legal problems. The research defines self-help broadly, to cover all services in which a person who has the legal issue is taking responsibility for some or all of the activities necessary to complete a legal transaction. 62 A great deal of recent effort has focused on supporting those who act on their own within the legal system. The number of people who do so has grown for a variety of reasons, including the cost of legal advice and services, limited access to legal aid, and the decision some make that they are able to deal with the legal system on their own. Self-help services have been less available in Ontario than they have been elsewhere, although that seems to be changing. In the US, where legal aid services are often in short supply, and in provinces such as British Columbia, which faced major cutbacks in legal aid services, necessity has been a strong impetus for a wide range of innovative self-help initiatives.
Self-help used to mean appearing in court without a lawyer. Now, the term covers a much wider range of activity and is “intimately connected to the provision of formal legal advice in ways that fall short of representation.” 63 With the broadening of the definition, it is not easy to draw a line between providing legal information and services and supporting self-help. Legal information from an intermediary or a website, if it enables individuals to apply the information to their specific circumstances, can be the foundation either for an appropriate referral or for a decision to proceed on their own. Interactive online programs that carefully take the user through the steps of a legal process or the completion of an essential legal form can start to look very much like a legal service.
Services that use hotlines, websites, or advice centres where lawyers or paralegals assist with concrete legal tasks straddle the line between giving a legal service and assisting the person to act on his or her own. Programs that separate the legal task into parts that require assistance from a legal professional and parts that people can manage on their own recognize that some legal steps are too demanding or complex to be completed without expert assistance. The distinction between a self-help service and providing legal information may be a question of what the provider expects the individual to do with the information.
A 2008 report on rural self-help in BC emphasized that clients are most likely to use self-help materials effectively if they have a high level of literacy, comprehension, and confidence. 64 Earlier studies in the US, UK, and Australia had reached the same conclusion. For that reason, and because marginalized groups need targeted assistance, the BC report found that self-help materials may not be suitable for people facing multiple barriers.
Gayla Reid and John Malcolmson, Voices from the Field, p. 6.
Ibid., p. 13.
The authors also pointed out that an intermediary to provide guidance, problem-solving and searching skills, and support greatly enhances the effectiveness of self-help materials. The personal approach is especially important for self-help services provided at a distance. The research showed that it is important to clients to be able to interact with a “live person.” The authors recommended that technology-based self-help projects take a “technology with a helper” approach; that is, link an intermediary to the technology.
In Ontario, Pro Bono Law Ontario’s Law Help initiative includes two pilot self-help centres for low-income unrepresented civil litigants in courthouses in the Toronto area. Lawyers are available at the centres to provide 30 minutes of legal advice, general legal information, and help with difficult tasks. The Law Help Ontario website also offers self-help resources such as tip sheets and guidebooks to various legal procedures and a video on self-representation in small claims court. Legal Aid Ontario is implementing a legal information website with a supporting hotline. Among other aims, it will assist users in proceeding with some matters on their own.
Responding to budgetary constraints in legal aid, British Columbia has taken a comprehensive approach to self-help and related services. The approach involves many different organizations, working independently and together. Services now available or under development include
• A Supreme Court self-help information centre
• Family law duty counsel and a civil chambers pro bono duty counsel project
• Establishment of a Justice Access Centre in one community (and another in the planning stage)
• Interactive online self-help programs (court tips, small claims, administrative law) developed by the Law Courts Education Society
• Various legal information websites, such as the Legal Services Society family law website
• A Legal Services Society hotline to provide summary legal advice and to help people navigate their way through the legal aid system
• A public legal information website called Clicklaw (about to be launched), expected to become a unified point of web-based access to diverse sources of legal information, education and practical help
• Law Matters, a new program that will place a basic legal collection in every public library and provide training to librarians on how to assist people in accessing legal information.
Ibid., p. 8.
Each of these services includes components that might help some individuals see the value of getting professional advice instead of proceeding on their own, or components that can help them to obtain legal advice and services. Other BC programs focus primarily on providing legal information or summary legal advice, but they also serve as resources for individuals proceeding on their own. These include the three pro bono legal services, the community-based legal information outreach workers (they assist individuals with income security, welfare, unemployment assistance, Canada Pension Plan, disability and residential tenancy problems, supported by a hotline), the lawyer referral service, and the People’s Law School materials and educational programs.
An Alberta project undertook mapping of self-represented litigants in that province. 66 The report from that project proposes self-help centres, which would make considerable use of technology to support residents of rural or remote areas. Following the report, “law information centres” have been established in three regions of Alberta, with a fourth scheduled to open in 2009.
Other approaches have been tried in the US. For example, in Ventura County, California, a Mobile Self-Help Center has been operating since 1999. In this program, a customized motor home containing self-help materials, video terminals and computers serves people who cannot come to an existing network of permanent self-help centres. The mobile centre travels on a regular schedule and is staffed by trained volunteer lawyers and student interns.
Chapter 5: Conclusions Drawing on the input from consultation meetings, submissions, and research, we reached some conclusions to guide our recommendations.
1. These are fundamental access to justice issues There are many aspects of access to justice, but we believe that the Law Foundation properly identified linguistic and rural access as two fundamental issues. As Ontario becomes increasingly diverse, and as rural and remote communities face lost or regionalized services, the need for innovative solutions is ever more pressing.
Low-income or vulnerable people in both groups face legal difficulties that relate to the most critical issues in life, such as income support, access to work, immigration status and settlement issues, housing, family problems, or health concerns. They also face a shortage of lawyers to help them in their community or in their own language. Isolation is common to both groups, whether social, geographic or both. For different reasons, they often have less access to and comfort with technology and may be more likely to have low literacy.
Low-income persons in rural and remote areas face challenges due to diminishing services, distances, and lack of transportation. The limited availability of clear and accurate multilingual legal information and interpretation services poses challenges for linguistic minorities. In addition, organizations trying to serve language groups have the pressure of trying to keep up with continually changing demographics.
2. Vulnerable people need legal service more than self-help We believe that vulnerable people, because they face language barriers, isolation, poverty, or a cluster of other difficulties that often accompany a legal problem, need to receive direct services rather than to rely on self-help.
Truly accessible information enables the person to identify and understand the legal problem, on its own and in its broader context. It is not sufficient simply to make the information available on line or in written format. People need to connect legal information to their own circumstances. Often, they need someone to help them define the problem, find the relevant information, apply the information to their situation, and make referrals to legal professionals who can advise and represent them in legal matters. For vulnerable people, this personal attention is essential, and they often need the additional support of a trusted intermediary.
In recent years, legal self-help tools have become prevalent. The innovations in this area are valuable, especially for people who do not qualify for legal aid and cannot afford representation. In some jurisdictions, self-help is especially important due to reductions in legal aid and other services. However, there are three reasons why we think it is reasonable to take the approach of emphasizing, as much as possible, access to legal advice and assistance for vulnerable client groups in Ontario.
First, Ontario has features that make personal access a more realistic goal than it is in many other jurisdictions. Legal Aid Ontario is one of the most extensive legal aid programs. Ontario’s community legal clinic system covers the entire province and specialty clinics address unique needs of particular relevance to these vulnerable populations. In family law, and in the area of domestic violence in particular, a variety of government, community, and legal organizations are developing innovative ways to make legal information and advice available to those who need it most.
Second, legal service providers are making major gains in understanding how to expand legal services for our target groups with the help of pro-bono lawyers, paralegals, law students, and well-trained intermediaries who have access to good information and legal help when they need it.
Third, although we have to bear in mind the risk of expecting and promising too much, technology seems to be on the cusp of becoming a realistic, affordable means of supporting wider access to expert legal advice and services.
Nonetheless, self-help is often a necessary or reasonable choice, even for vulnerable persons, and it is simply unrealistic to suggest that the desired level of legal support can always be available. Therefore, recent experiments to assist people to proceed on their own are vitally important. The emergence of self-help services where legal professionals continue to provide some support is a welcome approach that combines professional advice with selfrepresentation. Offering clients legal help on the most complex or technically difficult parts of their problem, for example, is preferable to leaving clients completely on their own. Similarly, programs that prepare clients well for whatever contact they will have with a legal professional can help to ensure the best use of scarce legal resources.
3. There is general agreement on the priority areas of law We asked legal organizations, public legal education providers, front-line clinic lawyers, immigrant settlement workers, disability organizations, and other stakeholders about the areas of law where there is the greatest demand for information and services. The feedback we
received was quite consistent, and largely common to both target groups:
• Consumer protection
• Criminal justice
• Family and child protection
• Health care and mental health
• Human rights
• Immigration and refugee status
• Income support We also heard that both groups have an urgent need for basic, general information about the legal system.