Recognizing Trusted Intermediaries as a Systematic Part of the Legal System

Intermediaries are individuals (or organizations) that help to connect two other individuals (or organizations). They are not themselves “legal” actors, but they can be an important link between individuals with a legal problem and a legal professional who is able to assist them. For example, an individual working in a community centre dedicated to helping refugees might be able to direct a refugee facing legal problems to an immigration lawyer. They may also refer people to others who play a formal role as a “legal” actor in the system. However, the referral may be to another trusted intermediary: for instance, a domestic violence shelter may refer a woman to the Family Court Support Worker Program as a beginning point for the woman who needs help from a legal service provider.

Although trusted intermediaries may be actors in different sectors (such as libraries), I’m limiting my comments here to community workers. They serve a crucial role in the legal system, but are often not recognized as part of it. They should be.

Trusted Help: The role of community workers as trusted intermediaries who help people with legal problems, commissioned by The Law Foundation of Ontario is a detailed examination of the trusted intermediary environment, issued in February 2018. As it states at p.15,

In Ontario, many frontline workers in non-legal community organizations have helped clients with legal problems by identifying legal issues, providing legal information, making legal referrals, helping clients to complete legal forms, suggesting next steps, and accompanying clients to legal meetings and hearings. Community workers can’t give legal advice, but they can and do help people to better understand the law and navigate the legal system. (p.7)

There are challenges with a sustained program based on trusted intermediaries, as the Trusted Help Report identifies (turnover, insufficient time for to take advantage of training that is available, understanding the distinction between legal advice and legal information and lack of resources are only four of the difficulties encountered by community workers referred to in the report). Nevertheless, with appropriate supports, they can be considered a vital part of the web of resources that allow people access to the legal system and effective use of it. The Trusted Help Report discusses at length, for example, the kind of training available for community workers, including examples from outside Canada. Availability of training is crucial to an effective role for trusted intermediaries, including refreshers, and needs to be considered an integral part of a holistic legal system that recognizes that community workers are able to provide an access point to people living on a low income not ready or able to seek legal help directly.

As the Trusted Help Report suggests at p.75, “People we consulted see the benefits of legal professionals working collaboratively with frontline community workers.For example, one lawyer we spoke to noted a big difference between clients who come alone and those who are accompanied by an intermediary.” However, important though this support is, community workers can play a broader role in the legal system and there are examples of where this is happening: the report refers to how community legal clinics and non-legal community workers partner together and to Connecting Communities, a project of Community Legal Education Ontario, dedicated to linguistic minorities and rural residents.

While there are links between lawyers or paralegals and community workers, they tend to be ad hoc. Where they exist, they can be very effective, with the relationship mutually beneficial. For example, lawyers can help provide information and training, while the close connection between trusted intermediaries and those who come to them for help reflects the fact that community workers are, by definition, located in the community and are familiar with the experiences of those they serve. (See examples in the Trusted Help Report.) As Karen Dyck expressed it in a Slaw post in October 2013, they serve an important function in “Bridging the Gap“.

Trusted intermediaries played a significant role in the Law Commission of Ontario’s 2013 vision of a revamped family law system, Increasing Access to Family Justice through Comprehensive Entry Points and Inclusivity. As the LCO suggested at p.63, they “have the potential to be an important linchpin in addressing the barriers that [the LCO] identified in accessing the justice system” in part because “they have a knowledge of and sensitivity to the challenges posed by the diverse needs of their constituents”.

Obviously, any attempt to incorporate trusted intermediaries into the legal system formally — or more systematically — would have to involve the intermediaries themselves and their concerns about the model or approach proposed. At least some community groups might be wary of potential restrictions; others might worry that it would impose an even greater burden on them without sufficiently increased resources. There would need to be trust between the intermediaries and the legal services providers. I recall a conversation at a conference I attended between a non-legal member of an organization assisting people needing help and a lawyer that revealed the importance of the relationship between the two entities: the community-based individual complained that if he sought assistance from a lawyer to help someone, the lawyer would “take over”, while the lawyer responded that the individual needed to seek assistance at an earlier stage. This does not necessarily reflect the relationships that exist between legal professionals and community organizations. Nevertheless, it is fundamental to the effective working of a system that includes community actors and legal service providers is that they understand the roles each plays and that they trust and respect each other, that they appreciate the benefits that each brings to individuals who need access to the legal system.

We can think about the legal system as a flexible web (and no doubt there are users of the system who might consider themselves caught in a web in a negative way; my web is neither sticky, nor designed to capture those requiring help) that links various actors that communicate with each other as needed, either to provide a referral for an individual seeking assistance or for the actors to obtain information or other assistance that would enable them to perform their role more effectively. The links would go in both directions. While we tend to think of trusted intermediaries as referring clients to legal service providers, it could also be that a legal service provider realizes that the help that someone needs (or some part of the help) is better provided by the trusted intermediary.

One example is in the domestic violence area. An individual might start out at a shelter; a worker at a shelter, after providing information and other assistance, might refer the individual to a legal service provider, a lawyer, depending on capacity to pay in some cases; the lawyer, who may be able to provide the legal help the individual needs, may realize that she may also need the kind of support that can be best provided by a family court support worker; other types of support may relate to the individual’s cultural practices. Although the LCO was focused on family law,
the involvement of trusted intermediaries can be beneficial in other areas, as well, as shown by the Trusted Help Report.

Whether helping to fill out forms, providing information or support, linking to other actors, legal and non-legal as needed, in the system, speaking to cultural needs, advising legal service providers when the intermediaries are unable to provide a service themselves, as well as other contributions, trusted intermediaries bring a distinct advantage to the legal system. Often their role will be at the start, but it does not need to be. The work they do must be treated as an integral part of the provision of services to low income people and people facing other difficulties in accessing the legal system, as providing services that they are particularly well-suited to provide because of their ties to, for example, Indigenous communities, to persons living with disabilities or with particular circumstances (such as HIV or AIDS) or newcomers to Canada. A holistic approach of which trusted intermediaries are a part could be most effective in increasing access to justice. .

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