In most urban centres, you can’t swing a stick without hitting a social service or social service connected agency. Most of these agencies are glad to have any legal materials they can get their hands on, and most are willing to share the materials they have. Most importantly, each of these agencies serves a specific target population with specific legal needs.
Groups like SUCCESS Settlement Services in British Columbia, for example, help newcomers to Canada overcome language and cultural barriers; groups like the Atira Women’s Resource Centre help women dealing with abuse through advocacy and education. Various other social service agencies have been set up to address the needs and interests of Canada’s first nations, the LGBTTQ community, the elderly, people coping with mental illness, the homeless and the addicted, and so on. Many of these groups also have in-house legal advocacy centres, and sometimes advocates who provide legal information and assist clients with common legal tasks. Those that don’t have something as organized as this will at least have a handful of pamphlets, information sheets, printouts and web links they routinely hand out.
Although there’s rarely any shortage of pamphlets and fact sheets, the reality is that there is always some specific subject or area of the law which could be addressed or addressed in more detail. Whether that’s the case or not, legal materials do not age well and inevitably need refreshing from time to time as the law changes.
A useful and easy way to promote access to justice is to connect with a few of the social service agencies in your neighbourhood, find out where the holes are in their library of legal resources, and fill them. Most agencies will be keenly aware of where the gaps are, but if that’s not the case you could arrange to visit their offices and root through their brochure rack to identify to any stale materials that could use updating. They’ll also welcome your interest and will be happy to work with you.
What’s fun and rewarding about this sort of work is not just the opportunity to connect with a group providing important community service, but to think and write about the law in a way that addresses the unique legals needs and realities of each group’s target population. Here, for example, is a screen capture of an information sheet for parents and parents-to-be that I wrote for the BC Council for Families, directed specifically toward the LGBTTQ community:
Other work of mine has focussed on family law for youth with children (for the BC Council for Families), abused women (for the BC Society of Transition Houses), parents living in poverty (for the Salvation Army’s defunct pro bono program), people in polyamorous relationships (for the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association), recent immigrants (for SUCCESS Settlement Services), grandparents caring for grandchildren (for the Parent Support Services Society of BC) and other populations.
Working with community media and larger social service groups is another way to enhance access to justice. Organizations such as these generally have a broader reach and better funding, and the work you do often goes much further. Here, for example, are screen captures of an article I wrote for the online magazine LawNow and of the front cover of a booklet I wrote for the People’s Law School:
LawNow is an Edmonton-based magazine published by the fantastic Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta and aimed, at least partially, at public school teachers and youth that talks about how law relates to every day life. The People’s Law School is a public legal education organization in Vancouver that has special experience working with other community groups to create information on the law, offers its publications in multiple languages and formats, and allows bulk orders of its print material. (It’s been my experience that social service agencies like these are more than happy to share whatever resources they have, often at no cost to the recipient save for postage and copying.) Both organizations are great to work with.
If you decide to tackle this sort of project, here are some tips and suggestions.
1. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Sometimes it’s enough just to update existing materials; the group you’re working with may even have the original document in an editable format.
2. Always use plain language, and be sensitive to the fluency of your audience. Aim for a reading level the group’s target population will be comfortable with.
3. Be neutral, but be alive to and respectful of the social and political perspective of the group you are working with.
4. Always explain that the information you are providing is general information and not a substitute for proper legal advice. It is important to protect yourself and the group you are working with from liability.
5. Encourage the translation and sharing of your work, but be wary of accepting responsibility for the accuracy of a translated document unless you can verify the translation.
On this last point, my preference has been to ask to not be identified as the author of translated material; a statement to the effect that the translated material is based on my original will usually do. I’ve made exceptions to this general rule is where the organization I’m working with is clearly assuming ownership of the publication and can pay for professional translation. For example, this booklet, which Nate Prosser and I wrote for the Legal Services Society…
… has been translated into French, Chinese (simplified and traditional), Punjabi and Spanish. Here are the Punjabi and Spanish covers:
Given the size, funding and outstanding professionalism of LSS, I have few concerns about the likely accuracy of the translations it obtained.
Finally, my personal practice has always been to avoid using legal materials like these to promote myself or my firm. Firstly, social service agencies are unlikely to be terribly enthused about working with you on a marketing tool. This is not unreasonable. Second, legal materials have a great deal more public credibility when they’re not seen as vehicles for rank self-promotion. Third, your firm may not wish to be seen as adopting one particular cause or affiliation over another.
John-Paul Boyd is the executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family. The Institute is a federally-incorporated charity established in 1987 and is affiliated with the University of Calgary.