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Building Paths to Justice in Rural Wellington County: Learnings From the WellCoMs Mobile Van Pilot Project

In order to create pathways to justice it is often necessary to discover and follow the paths along which people already walk. This is what the WellCoMs Mobile Legal Services Van has done with great success in rural Wellington County by connecting with the normal patterns of communication and with the other ways people obtain help with everyday problems. This pilot project, which operated between May and October 2019, was developed by the Legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County and funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario. Wellington County covers an area of 2,657 square kilometers mostly north of the city of Guelph. Guelph is located about 95 kilometers west of Toronto. The van, which was staffed by two outreach workers, travelled to 12 small communities on a regular schedule making 12 visits to each community over the 6-months of the pilot project. The van would park in conspicuous places intended to attract the attention of passers-by. Signage at the van and close to the street indicated the availability of free legal help. The monthly schedule of visits for all 12 towns was posted in places throughout each town where people are likely to go in the normal course of their daily activities. These places included grocery stores, hardware stores, coffee shops, food banks, churches, libraries and auto service stations. On the morning of each visit a notice was posted on community Facebook pages. Twitter was used primarily to communicate with organizations. Facebook posts were viewed thousands of times and tweets were re-tweeted multiple times.

People were not reluctant to approach the van asking for help. Over the 6-month period, the van was visited by a total of 586 people of which 122 were casual visitors and 464 people (79%) identified a problem and requested assistance. In casual conversations with one of the outreach workers a few people who asked for assistance volunteered that they were reluctant to approach the van in their hometown. Some people said they had passed by the van several times before deciding they should come in for help. Most of the people requesting assistance probably would not otherwise have received assistance. A match of clinic records with records maintained at the van indicated that 85% of the people requesting assistance had not previously contacted or had been a client of the legal clinic in Guelph. In a follow-up survey of people who had asked for assistance, 73% of respondents said they would probably not have approached legal aid at that time were it not for the presence of the van.

Family law was the most frequent problem identified by people asking for help. This was followed by landlord-tenant matters, civil disputes, wills and powers of attorney, criminal charges, employment issues and problems relating to the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). The eight most frequent problems made up 85% of the very wide range of problems people brought to the van. The outreach workers provided public legal education (PLE) and referrals. The van also had the capacity to allow people to connect immediately with the clinic by Skype. About 8% of the 464 people requesting assistance used the Skype option.

The project made substantial progress connecting with the resources already available within the rural community. About 13% of the people requesting assistance were referred to 23 different community organizations. Almost 10% were referred to the van by 21 different organizations. There is an opportunity to develop collaborative partnerships between the legal clinic and community organizations, through partnerships engaging the resources extant within the community. With the leadership of the legal clinic access to legal services can become part of the social organization of helping, magnifying the capacity of legal aid to meet the needs of people in the community.

There is some evidence that accessing the van was becoming part of the social organization of the community. In a number of cases people told the outreach workers that they were asking for information about a problem being experienced by a friend or relative, intending to pass along PLE material or a suggestion of where help could be obtained. In other cases, people said a friend or relative had told them about the van and suggested they go there for help.

Social media was a key to the success of the project. Through the use of social media, knowledge about the van became part of the normal communication patterns among people. In May, 2% of visitors to the van requesting help said they had heard about it through social media. In October, this figure had risen to 33%. Personal communication and social media frequently combined. People often told the outreach workers that a friend or relative had learned about the van on Facebook and suggested they come by for help.

The experience with the van during the 6-month pilot period suggested that the van had become a visible presence in the community. It began to make legal aid part of the community being served. People learned about the van as they went about their normal everyday activities, in part because the van was visibly present in places where people lived or spent some of their time. Sometimes people learned about the van from other organizations in the community and through everyday communication passed along information about the van within social networks among friends and relatives, sometimes through social media.

The WellCoMs Mobile Van Project has been a very successful example of outreach in providing legal services to a difficult-to-reach population, going out to where people live or spend their time and providing service to people who would not otherwise receive it. It has been successful by becoming part of the community being served, by building connections with a variety of community services and voluntary associations and by connecting with people through the same patterns of communication that are used among friends and relatives. As legal services providers confront the ubiquitous nature of legal problems, the difficulty reaching people experiencing them and the necessity of holistic and integrated approaches engaging the resources in the community is the way forward for expanding legal aid. The justice gap is wider than had previously been thought and it seems less likely that the resources available for legal aid from conventional sources will be adequate to deal with the access problem. The community is an important resource for extending the reach of legal aid.

Ab Currie, Ph.D.
Senior Research Fellow
Canadian Forum on Civil Justice

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