Legal and Community Partners Supporting Each Other to Help People With Legal Needs

When people are dealing with a legal problem they often don’t approach a lawyer as their first step. Frequently, people go to a source they’re in closer contact with: frontline staff working in local community-based organizations.

Frontline workers are people working in settlement agencies, housing or health support, libraries, community centres, and in many other community services. They listen attentively, show empathy, and try their best to refer clients in the right direction. Frontline workers get to know their clients’ circumstances and their larger set of problems. In some cases, they share languages and cultural backgrounds with their clients. Their primary work is to provide non-legal supports but, because they’re already connecting with people, are trusted, and are knowledgeable, they are well-positioned to also provide legal information and referrals.

In recent years, The Law Foundation of Ontario has provided millions of dollars in grants to increase the capacity of frontline workers in non-legal organizations to help people with legal problems. Last year, we commissioned a research report to examine how frontline workers – a kind of trusted intermediary – were helping people with legal problems and how the legal sector is and could better support them in their efforts.

The report, Trusted Help: The role of community workers as trusted intermediaries who help people with legal problems, by Karen Cohl, Julie Lassonde, Julie Mathews, Carol Lee Smith, and George Thomson, shares what we learned about trusted intermediaries – who they are, how they help, and how the legal sector can work with and support them as they support people with legal needs.

We know that people with legal needs may take action on their own, get help from a non-legal worker, or obtain legal advice from a legal service provider. Many people may never see a lawyer – they may be deterred by the cost, or they may not know how to find a lawyer, or they may not be able to find a lawyer with the expertise needed to help them. We also know that many of those people who struggle to connect with a legal service provider will seek help from trusted intermediaries. There are different kinds of trusted intermediaries, and Trusted Help focuses on frontline workers in non-legal community organizations whose clients have legal problems in addition to the issues that brought them in to the organization initially.

The report shares the findings from a literature review, file review, focus groups, interviews, and a survey of more than 400 people, including more than 230 frontline workers in non-legal organizations. The report provides insights into what trusted intermediaries are doing and how comfortable they are doing it.

What do trusted intermediaries do when people come to them for help? The 231 frontline workers who took the time to respond to our survey indicated that most common activity is to provide referrals to legal service providers (93%) followed by providing basic information about legal rights and procedures (88%). Other forms of help are illustrated below.

When asked how comfortable trusted intermediaries were with provided this help, the majority (92%) reported the highest levels of comfort with referring people to legal service providers. Comfort levels with other activities are illustrated below.

The report highlighted the many benefits of engaging trusted intermediaries and increasing their capacity to help people with legal problems:

  • Clients are comfortable and trust intermediaries
  • Trusted intermediaries may be able to identify legal issues and support early intervention before legal issues develop into significant problems
  • It isn’t feasible to consult a lawyer every time a legal problem arises; trusted intermediaries help identify the problems that need the intervention of a legal service provider
  • Trusted intermediaries link people to legal professionals and can provide high quality referrals
  • Trusted intermediaries complement the roles played by lawyers and paralegals and create opportunities for holistic interventions to support people with complex and intersecting problems

The report also captures new insights into the challenges facing people with legal problems and the trusted intermediaries who support them:

  • Organizations serving Indigenous, rural, and northern communities often face additional barriers, including distance and the availability of services
  • Frontline workers have varying degrees of interest and comfort with the law and legal information
  • Relationships take time to build and are an essential feature of the trusted intermediary role; however many community organizations face high staff turnover, which can create problems maintaining capacity
  • Workers have multiple competing demands on their time
  • Organizations have limited funding and tools and supports, including training, for trusted intermediaries can be expensive or time-consuming to develop
  • Trusted intermediaries benefit from support from their organization, including policies, in-house training, and support from management to engage with their clients’ legal problems

There are opportunities for the legal sector to better support trusted intermediaries by ensuring high quality legal information is available to them in relevant areas and building relationships that support quality referrals between legal and non-legal service providers.

Lastly, Trusted Help explores the line between legal information and advice. Community workers want information and training to understand and navigate the distinction between information and advice. Further exploration of this issue is required and in looking at the issue, it will be important not to err on the side of being too restrictive about what trusted intermediaries can do. Constructive approaches will empower trusted intermediaries to do what they are uniquely positioned to do – address complex and intersecting legal and social problems by helping to identify legal issues, provide legal information, support high quality referrals to legal service providers, and provide complementary services that help people with legal needs – especially the most vulnerable – address complex and intersecting legal and social problems.

The Trusted Help report was written by Karen Cohl, Julie Lassonde, Julie Mathews, Carol Lee Smith, and George Thomson.

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