The Legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County has just completed what appears, based on a preliminary analysis of the data, to have been a highly successful pilot project to expand legal aid services to rural Wellington County in Southwestern Ontario. The project is being funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario. The project involved using a van to provide outreach services to 12 small communities spread throughout the 2,657 square kilometers of the county, visiting each community 10 or more times on a regular schedule between May and October. The van, staffed by two outreach workers, would park in a conspicuous place in the town for a day, putting out signage announcing the availability of help with legal problems. People requesting assistance could connect via Skype with the clinic in Guelph, were provided with public legal information, and with referrals to other sources of assistance in the county.
A basic objective was to make the presence of the van part of the everyday activities of the community being visited. The project did this in a number of ways. The main strategies were going out to and being visible in places where people live or spend their time, sharing information about the van in community newspapers, placing posters with the monthly schedule in cafes, libraries, grocery stores, hardware stores, garages, food banks and other places around town where people are likely to go in their daily round of activities, and using social medial to let people and community organizations know about the van.
The final research report for this project is presently being written. Here are a few preliminary results. The van was visited by 586 people over the six-month period. There appear to be no similar projects with evaluation data with which to compare. However, this number compares favourably with a few other types of outreach projects for which data are available. Slightly more than 80% of visitors (464 people) requested help with a problem, suggesting that people are not reluctant to ask for help. A few people said they had come to visit the van in that particular town because they did not want to do so in their own town. A number of people said they had passed by the van a few times before deciding it was time to drop in, but eventually they did.
Another remarkable finding is that about 87.5% of visitors to the van had not previously contacted or been clients of the legal clinic in Guelph. The van is not only going out to where people live or spend their time, it is evidently assisting many people who possibly would not otherwise receive service.
Although the van has made considerable progress expanding legal aid in rural Wellington County, we do not know the extent to which the project has addressed the depths of unmet need. The van parked in conspicuous places in the towns, choosing locations calculated to optimize visibility for attracting street traffic. Other measures (described above) were taken to inform people about the van. However, we do not know how successfully the presence of the van in the towns reached outward to the more remote back roads and side roads of the county where people may have limited access to transportation or experience other barriers.
Social media was one of the most important ways in the mix of efforts to inform people about the van. At the beginning of the project in May, 2.3% of people requesting assistance said they learned about the van through social media. In October, 33.0% of visitors requesting help with a problem said they learned about the van through social media. As time progressed, comments made by visitors revealed how the van was tapping into the patterns of everyday communication among people via social media. Many people said that a friend or relative heard about the van on Facebook and suggested they should go there for help. People who heard about the van on social media came asking for help on behalf of others, presumably taking information back to friends and family members. This suggests how legal aid can become embedded in, or part of, the fabric of the communities they serve, as is expressed in two commonly used evocative phrases. By using social media, knowledge that help is available and I know where to find it is passed along from one person to another through social networks of friends and family. In that way the presence of the van becomes part of the patterns of communication that make up the everyday life of the community.
Three social media platforms were used by the project; Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Twitter and Facebook were used daily. Instagram was used occasionally. Twitter was used primarily to communicate with service providers, government offices, media outlets and other community organizations. Facts about the mobile legal service, schedules for visits by the van and “shout-outs” to supporters could be tweeted out to the community. Short videos could be included to raise interest levels. The tweet sent out on August 15 was retweeted 6 times and recorded 2,100 impressions (the count of the number of times the tweet was viewed), illustrating how effective twitter can be for engaging community organizations.
Facebook was the primary social media vehicle for engaging with individuals. A large number of people learned about the van on community Facebook pages. The initial Facebook post on May 1 was viewed by more than 10,000 people. The other nine of the top 10 Facebook posts were viewed by 2,000 to 6,500 people.
Instagram was used occasionally to send out interesting video clips or pictures or to tell the cyber audience about the van by relaying stories about interesting situations. Instagram was an attempt to give people some interesting context and to inform them about the project.
The experience during the pilot phase of WellCoMs project shows how effective a service delivery strategy based on outreach can be and how powerful social media can be in expanding legal aid. Embedding legal aid in the community and using digital technology are not alternative ways to extend the reach of legal. They can be highly complementary. We think that the use of social media has been instrumental in the success of the WellCoMs project.
(1) Ab Currie, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Fellow, Canadian Forum on Civil Justice. Max Leighton and Rosanne Vandermeer are the Outreach Workers who worked on the WellComS van.
(2) For more information on the WellCoMs Mobile Van Project, see Ab Currie, Building Paths to Justice in Rural Wellington County – First Interim Report (Toronto: Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, August 2019), online: CFCJ <https://cfcj-fcjc.org/wp-content/uploads/The-WellCoMs-Mobile-Van-Project-Building-Paths-to-Justice-in-Rural-Wellington-County-Interim-Report-August-2019-by-Ab-Currie.pdf>; Ab Currie, Building Community Connections – Second Interim Report (Toronto: Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, September 2019), online: CFCJ <https://cfcj-fcjc.org/wp-content/uploads/Building-Community-Connections-Second-Interim-Report-of-the-WellCoMs-Mobile-Van-Project-by-Ab-Currie.pdf>.