Building Bridges Between Private Bar Services and Community Legal Clinics

Community legal clinics have always had strong linkages with the communities they serve and have developed connections with community organizations. They have done this by working with community service agencies and voluntary organizations through different forms of outreach to identify people with legal problems who would probably not otherwise request assistance and by using holistic and integrated approaches to service delivery that identify people experiencing multiple problems and sometimes complex problem clusters. Compared with contacts with community organizations, connections with the private bar have not been prominent aspects of outreach. Community legal clinics can increase the market for private sector legal services providers by referring to the private bar the larger numbers of people with legal need identified by means of outreach and by employing holistic intake and service delivery. This blog presents data demonstrating the potential for creating linkages between legal services provided by lawyers operating in the private sector and community legal clinics that employ outreach to identify potential unmet legal needs.

Data Source

The analysis is based on previously unpublished data from a pilot project providing a mobile legal service to people in rural Wellington County operated by the Legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County between May and October 2019.[1] During the six-month period, the WellCoMS van visited 12 small towns throughout rural Wellington County, making approximately a dozen visits to each community over the duration of the project.[2] The WellcoMS mobile legal service established extensive connections with community services, making receiving referrals from a variety of organizations, including referrals to local private bar lawyers.[3] Following initial consultations that were part of the planning process, it was decided that building linkages between the project with the local private bar should be a priority. A list of local lawyers was compiled by the clinic and was used throughout the project by the legal workers operating the van to refer clients to lawyers in private practice.

Using a check-box on a data collection form, the two community legal workers who operated the van recorded whether one or more referrals had been made to people who identified a problem for which they wanted advice. If one or more referrals were provided, the specific organizations to which the referrals were made were recorded in long form on the data sheet. The data on referrals to the private bar used for this analysis were determined from the original data sheets. This was done by counting the number of mentions of referrals to the private bar recorded by the community legal workers at the van.

Pathways to Private Bar Lawyers

Out of the total of 464 people who visited the van and identified a problem about which they were provided advice[4], 188 users (40.5%) were referred to the private bar. This could have involved a referral to the Law Society of Ontario lawyer referral service, to Pro Bono Ontario[5] or to a private bar lawyer in the local area. These referrals could have been made in combination with referrals to other community services or voluntary associations. In a number of cases more than one private bar referral was made, for example, to a local private sector lawyer and to Pro Bono Ontario. In total, 259 referrals were made to one of the three pathways to lawyers in private practice.

  • 170 referrals to the Law Society Referral Service
  • 53 referrals to local lawyers in the private sector
  • 36 referrals to Pro Bono Ontario

Referrals involved a very wide variety of everyday problems with possible legal aspects and potential legal solutions identified by the legal workers at the van. Table 1 shows the percentage of referrals to the three private bar sources for the main problem types.

[Click the graphic to see a larger version of this table.]

The extent to which people followed up on these referrals is unknown. However, the total of 259 referrals to the private bar represents a substantial linkage between a community legal service and private sector lawyers. This is significant since collaborative partnerships and referrals normally occur between community legal clinics and community organizations.

The Importance of Outreach and of Holistic and Integrated Service

The potential for developing extensive bridging between community legal clinics and the private bar through greater numbers of referrals depends on the approach to identifying legal needs and service delivery taken by community legal clinics. This involves two features that are coming to characterize progressive community legal clinics. The first is outreach. The second is holistic and integrated service.


Legal problems surveys have demonstrated repeatedly over the past two decades that members of the public experience a large number of everyday legal problems. In Canada, about half the adult population can be expected to experience one or more legal problems within a three-year period. This amounts to millions of people and even more problems since some people experience multiple problems.[6] However, a large proportion of the everyday legal problems experienced by the public remain hidden. For a variety of reasons people do not recognize that the everyday problems they experience as having legal aspects or potential legal solutions. People may feel that nothing can be done. If they do recognize the problem as legal in nature, people may be reluctant to go to a lawyer, feeling that legal fees would be too high and fearing they might be drawn into an escalating process in which costs would escalate. Language or other social and cultural factors can also act as barriers to accessing help with legal problems.

People do go to various organizations in the community for help with life’s problems. However, the service providers in these organizations, whether they are professionally trained or experienced volunteers, may not recognize the legal implications of problems with which they are helping others or may be unsure about where to go for advice. Recognizing these issues, the service delivery model of many community legal clinics is built on outreach. This involves proactively reaching out to communities to identify people experiencing problems, working with the community to develop solutions in ways that make sense to them, going out to where people live or spend much of their time to engage people and, as a consequence, serving people who would otherwise not receive assistance. Legal problems are ubiquitous in modern bureaucratic societies in which the law reaches into many aspects of daily life. Building legal services on outreach is essential in order to fully meet the legal needs of the public. Outreach has the potential to identify large numbers of people with legal needs.

Holistic and Integrated Service

People often experience multiple problems. Legal problems trigger and are triggered by other legal problems and non-legal problems. The everyday legal problems that people experience often occur in interconnected clusters of legal and non-legal problems. Holistic intake is used by community legal clinics to identify multiple interconnected problems and holistic service provision is designed to address them. This results in more problems being identified than would be the case if a service provider engaging a client in the absence of a holistic framework narrowed the range of assistance focusing only on a presenting problem. Community legal clinics may not be able to meet all the legal and associated non-legal needs that may be presented by a client. Collaborative partnerships with and referrals to organizations with the skills or capacity to assist people the clinic cannot are necessary to meet the legal needs of the public.

Community Legal Clinics and the Private Legal Service Sector

By employing outreach and holistic service some community legal clinics have developed the capacity to identify a large number of people experiencing legal problems. However, community clinics may not cover the large range of problems that proactive outreach and holistic problem identification can produce. Most Ontario community clinics have small staffs and have the capacity to assist with problems in a limited number of areas of law. This is where engagement with other community agencies, voluntary associations and the private bar through referrals can become important. The WellCoMS rural mobile van project demonstrated the potential for developing pathways to justice through community clinic – private bar referrals. Notably, a proactive approach to the community based on outreach does not ordinarily initially screen people for level of income at intake, although some financial eligibility criteria may apply with respect to the provision of service. Thus, the people identified may extend beyond financial eligibility criteria that may apply or the coverage available from a community legal clinic.

Outreach to identify people experiencing possible legal problems and holistic intake to refine and elaborate the needs of individuals that are becoming more important elements of community legal service open a potential market for the private legal services sector. Private law firms probably do not have the business model and may not have the resources for outreach and for holistic and integrated service that community legal clinics have. However, the way in which community legal clinics engage with the community to identify people with potential legal needs opens a potential market that small private firms do not have the capacity to reach. It is possible that services provided by private sector legal services could themselves become more holistic by developing collaborative arrangements with the networks of access to justice services that are established by community clinics as a normal part of their approach to service delivery.

Expanding access to justice is the objective of the whole legal profession. Rather than being in conflict, publicly funded community legal services that are built upon outreach and on holistic and integrated approaches have potential for developing partnerships with the private sector that support the global objective of justice for all. The referral patterns from the WellCoMS rural mobile van demonstrate this potential.

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


[1] Ab Currie, Someone Out There Helping: Final Report of the WellCoMS Mobile Van Project (Toronto: Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, December 2019), online: CFCJ <>.

[2] Ibid at 5, Table 1.

[3] Ibid at 12.

[4] Ibid at 7 Table 2.

[5] These referrals are included because the service is provided by private sector lawyers, although on a voluntary basis.

[6] Trevor C.W. Farrow, Ab Currie, Nicole Aylwin, Les Jacobs, David Northrup and Lisa Moore, Everyday Legal Problems and the Cost of Justice in Canada: Overview Report (Toronto: Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, 2016), online: CFCJ <>.

Comments are closed.