Discussions about access to justice typically focus attention on access through the traditional routes of courts, lawyers, law schools and pro bono or legal aid service providers. In this context, solutions tend to emphasize more effective use of online technologies or simplification of processes to bridge the gap between those who need legal services and the services they require.
But, as Julie Matthews made clear in her recent article, Educating the Early Assistance Providers, in some cases, community-based intermediaries can function effectively to provide assistance that can reduce or eliminate escalation of a legal problem to the point where traditional legal dispute resolution mechanisms are even required:
Research shows that legal problems are often mixed with a range of related social and other issues, and people facing a cluster of issues may not even recognize that their problem is legal in nature. Key intermediaries can help people recognize a legal component, gain a basic understanding of the problem and possible next steps, as well as get a helpful referral to legal and social services. As a result of this early support, people may be better equipped to take some initial steps — such as talking with their landlord or neighbour — that can prevent a problem from escalating.
Intermediaries are trusted community members, often working in social services or holding leadership positions within their communities. They serve as a natural point of first contact when a legal issue arises, for those who don’t typically have direct access to a lawyer.
The use of intermediaries as an effective means to enhance access to justice was confirmed in the August 2013 CLEO report, Public Legal Education and Information in Ontario Communities: Formats and Delivery Channels. The researchers in that project found that:
Low-income and socially isolated people are most likely to seek out or rely on in-person support from a trusted intermediary, such as community workers, when seeking information and assistance. In Canada, this is particularly true for people who speak non-official languages, Aboriginal peoples, people with low literacy skills, people with disabilities, and others who are low-income and disadvantaged. Moreover, because of cognitive changes that appear to take place when under stress, some research suggests “[o]ne-on-one, individualized information sessions may be the most appropriate way” to initially address legal issues with people in crisis.
They went on to note that:
In a context where legal services remain inaccessible to many Ontarians because of the limited availability of affordable or free legal advice and representation services, support from a trusted intermediary in accessing PLEI and determining how to take action can offer important help. How far this will take the client depends on several factors including the complexity of the legal problem, the resources available to the client, and the skill and confidence level of the client.
The importance of community-based intermediaries was also identified in the Manitoba Bar Association’s 2010 Report and Summary: Town Hall Meetings on Access to Justice and resulted in recommendations to: enhance access to community based advocacy and legal support services; support efforts to enhance cooperation among and coordination of community based-services; and provide training opportunities for community service providers in relation to domestic violence and cultural awareness, in particular.
In Manitoba, a number of such training programs, designed to prepare community-based intermediaries to provide para-legal support and legal information, are delivered ongoing. Community Legal Education Association’s Community Legal Intermediary training course provides legal information on a range of topics over the course of a ten-week, 20-hour program and an Advanced Community Legal Intermediary course provides a further 14 hours of training. Community Unemployed Help Centre, in partnership with the Public Interest Law Centre has also been providing training to advocates in poverty law issues specifically.
These training programs are provided largely through volunteer support from practicing lawyers, and as noted by Ms Matthews:
…these training partnerships are of benefit to the legal experts as well as to the community intermediaries. Community workers help the lawyer/ trainer understand the circumstances and legal needs of their clients, which in turn can help lawyers improve the legal services they provide.
Well-trained intermediaries are key to providing broad-based access to justice, serving as a point of first contact to provide basic information, appropriate referrals and to ensure efficient use of more specialized legal resources by potentially reducing the demands upon those resources.