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Community-Based Justice

Does finding help in your community when you are experiencing troubles produce a sense of wellbeing and security? Do feelings of well-being and security matter as outcomes?

The criminal law perspective has dominated the public and professional discourse about community security and wellbeing for decades. This has ranged along the political continuum from tougher crime control measures and mandatory sentences intended to remove criminals from our streets to community policing intended to make a police presence both a comfort and a protection for community residents. Let’s now turn our attention to the role of access to civil justice in community wellbeing and security.

The concept of wellbeing can be defined as the combination of social, economic, environmental, cultural, and political conditions identified by individuals and their communities as essential for them to flourish and fulfil their potential.’[1] Community wellbeing can be assessed across a number of domains but almost always including economy, health social relations and security. Wellbeing may be conceived as a characteristic of the individual, or as a property of the community that can emerge from relationships between individuals and place.[2] However, the current literature on community wellbeing does not seem to include access to justice services and initiatives. Notwithstanding, community wellbeing is a potentially useful concept for access to justice. The extent to which people experience everyday legal problems and the difficulties that they have responding to them is central in contemporary literature on legal needs and access to justice. Assistance with troubling problems can have benefits for individuals and, in a restorative or holistic justice framework, can re-establish relationships between individuals. Building community capacity to identify people experiencing everyday legal problems and provide them with assistance by establishing institutions at the community level can strengthen the community by building a social organization of helping or enhancing existing structures.

We now have in hand the cumulative results of decades of legal needs research carried out in Canada and around the world, a body of findings demonstrating that not obtaining effective help when experiencing everyday legal problems matters, or not resolving them can produce a range of tangible and intangible disadvantages and harms. The results of over 75 major national and regional research studies and many state-level studies in the U. S. have yielded remarkably consistent results. First, legal problems experienced by members of the public are ubiquitous.[3] In our “law thick” world in which most of life’s normal transactions and transitions are regulated and have a legal aspect. Estimates of the number of people experiencing one or more everyday problems with potential legal solutions, often referred to as justiciable problems, vary in different countries because of different social and economic conditions and sometimes over time in the same country because different research methodologies are employed. However, the overall conclusion is that everyday legal problems are a nearly normal feature of life.[4] Second, people often don’t obtain the help they need. Many do not know if help for the sort of problem being experienced is available and in any event do not know where to go for help. People fail to recognize the seriousness of problems when they first occur and, to a greater extent do not recognize the potential legal aspects.[5] Yet, many of these problems are perceived as serious and difficult to resolve by the people experiencing them.. Attempting to deal with or failing to resolve problems also has serious intangible costs such as high levels of stress and adverse health.[6]

When these troubles occur at the intersection of the law and everyday life, as they inevitably will for a large number of Canadians[7], do people feel a greater sense of wellbeing and security in their communities when they can get the help they need to deal with problems of justice and fairness? Do feelings of wellbeing and a sense of security translate into greater knowledge about and use of available assistance? Do they result in people taking action early and thus allowing early intervention by service providers in the evolution of a problem?

In the last few years community legal clinics in Ontario have developed a number of innovative approaches to service delivery that have advanced community-based justice. Some examples are the legal health check-up aimed at partnering with community services and voluntary associations to identify people among their clients or constituencies with undiscovered law-related problems. Legal secondary consultation provided by community legal clinics assists service providers in helping organizations that are already helping people. The underlying premise is that many of the problems with which community organizations are helping people have legal aspects that are unrecognized by the service providers. Advice from a legal worker enables community services and voluntary associations to better serve their own clients. The Newcomers PLE Conversations initiative aims at helping newcomers to Canada resolve problems in areas like housing and employment, taking into account the specific barriers they may face. This was done by partnering with trusted intermediaries in immigrant and refugee communities. The Helping People Where They’re At outreach project partnered with community organizations to bring assistance to people in need from a variety of groups in an urban setting.[8] More recently, the three-year rural mobile law van project is bringing assistance to people in the rural places where they live or spend their time, in rural Wellington County and the North Halton Region.[9] These projects share a common thread.[10] They reach out to communities with a proactive offer of help. Building on outreach, community legal clinics learn about the problems people experience and then work with community organizations to develop solutions in ways that make sense to the people being helped, in ways that take into account the realities of their lives. Importantly, the initiative goes out to where people live or spend much of their time, helping people who would otherwise not receive assistance.

In the context of this discussion, these successful initiatives raise questions about whether they create feelings of wellbeing and security for individuals as a result of the help provided. At the community level, can they have the effect of transforming communities into places that contribute to wellbeing and security, and are perceived by the individuals who live there as doing so? One mechanism by which access to justice initiatives might strengthen community is to help people re-establish relationships that may have been fractured by family problems or other disputes. This draws upon the idea that legal action may be one of several options to resolve a problem. Holistic and integrated approaches offer alternative types of assistance that can focus on the different outcomes to a dispute individuals might prefer. Recent community-based justice research carried out in South Africa describes the role of community-based paralegals and how they provide this kind of people-centered assistance.[11] What sets community-based paralegals (CBPs) apart from other paralegals is that they seek to resolve a wide range of community issues while straddling the formal, traditional system and informal legal systems. The strategies pursued by community-based paralegals depend on individual circumstances and the client’s preferences. Each case is treated as unique and requiring creative solutions. Due to their social embeddedness, CBPs frequently use mediation and restorative justice techniques which are culturally appropriate for indigenous people. Their effectiveness is facilitated by similar and proximate living conditions and spaces between themselves and their clients, which promotes empathy. Their holistic approach to justice means they are successful where others are not meeting the needs of local people.

Another way to strengthen communities is to build trusted places and pathways in the community where people know they can find the help they need. The mobile law van provides an example of how this was accomplished through the normal patterns of communication using social media among people in the community. The presence of the law van was always announced on the community Facebook page of the town where the van was scheduled on a particular day. The results of the first phase of the rural mobile law van project showed that about 3% of people seeking advice at the law van learned about the van through Facebook at the beginning of the project. At the end of the six-month project, 30% of users said they had learned about the mobile law van through Facebook. People coming to the van for assistance often made unsolicited comments that were recorded by the legal workers, although not systematically, such as my mother saw you on Facebook and she told me I should come to see you.[12] The law van became integrated into the social organization of communication about community activities.

Previous community-based justice research in Canada has focused on forming partnerships between community legal clinics and community organizations and building the capacity of community services and organizations to work more effectively with clinics to expand access to justice. A major issue for project development and research is undiscovered problems experienced by people with unmet need who do not come forward until the situation is dire. The proposition advanced in this short article is that this can be addressed by community-based service producing a sequence of effects; effective outreach making a community-based service highly accessible, make it part of the community being served, resulting in a sense of well-being and security among people in the community, resulting in people accessing services earlier and more reliably going forward. Community wellbeing and security adds another perspective to the existing body of work. The first question for empirical participatory research and project development in community-based justice from a wellbeing and security lens is whether highly accessible forms of assistance come to be viewed by people as part of the community and result in feelings of wellbeing and security among them.[13] A follow-on question is whether the feelings of wellbeing and security in one’s community, coming from the knowledge of where help is available when needed, has a magnifying effect on accessibility. Once helped by a service that is perceived as a part of the community, and moreover, as a trusted part of the community is it more likely that people will to go there again? Will people be more likely to seek help early on when a problem arises and is less complex or intractable than it would had they delayed until later.

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

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[1] Ann Marie Bagnall, Salvatore Di Martino, Rhiannon Corcoran and Girlinde Pilkington, What is Community Wellbeing? A Conceptual Review, Community Wellbeing Evidence Program, 2017 p. 8

[2] Ibid., p. 5

[3] Estimates of the prevalence of everyday legal problems in Canada vary from 34% in the most recent survey (see Laura Savage and Susan McDonald, Experiences of Serious Problems or disputes in Canada, 2021, Statistics Canada, Cat, No 85-002-X) to almost half of the adult population experiencing one or more problems (48.4%) within a three-year period (for a summary of the research up to 2014 see Ab Currie, Nudging the Paradigm Shift: Everyday Legal Problems in Canada, Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, 2016). Savage and McDonald estimate that 18% of adult Canadians experience one or more serious legal problems within a three-year period.

[4] Readers of this research are well-advised not to become too preoccupied with artificial precision in the presence of different estimates from the research. The data based on self-reported legal problems and consequences is fundamentally subjective and the underlying continuity is qualitative rather than quantitative.

[5] Ab Currie, Nudging the Paradigm Shift, p. 5

[6] Trevor C W Farrow, Ab Currie, Nicole Alywin, Les Jacobs, David Northrup and Lisa Moore, Everyday Legal Problems and the Cost of Justice in Canada: Overview Report, Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, Toronto, 2016 p. 16.

[7]The 2014 Canadian Forum on Civil Justice survey estimates the number of adult Canadian experiencing one or more problems within a three-year period at 11.4 million. Savage and McDonald estimate that 5.5 million Canadians experience one or more serious problems within a three-year period.

[8] Reports and articles about these projects are available in one publication; Ab Currie, Communities Being Served Are the Resources That Are Needed, 2022

[9] A report on phase one of this project is also included in Ab Currie, 2022

[10] A newly released anthology of “Innovations in Community-Based Justice in Ontario” offers a comprehensive look at the research and reports discussed in this section. See Ab Currie, The Communities Being Served are the Resources that are Needed: Innovations in Community-Based Justice in Ontario, an Anthology of Canadian Research (Toronto: Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, March 2022), online: <https://cfcj-fcjc.org/wp-content/uploads/The-Communities-Being-Served-are-the-Resources-that-are-Needed-Innovations-in-Community-Based-Justice-Anthology-by-Ab-Currie.pdf>.

[11] See generally Centre for Community Justice & Development (CCJD), online: <http://www.ccjd.org.za/>.

[12] Ab Currie, Someone Out There Helping; Final Report of the WelComs Mobile Van Project in The Communities Being Helped are the Resources that are Needed, p. 223

[13] Ongoing research by the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice on access to legal services will likely provide useful insights on this question. See CFCJ, “Measuring the Impact of Legal Service Interventions”, online: <https://cfcj-fcjc.org/our-projects/measuring-legal-service-interventions/>.

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