Community Organizations and Access to Justice

I’ve long thought that community non-profits play a major role in increasing access to justice — and can play an even more significant role under the right circumstances. In this post, I consider this view in light of a 2020 report on measures to advance the contribution of community-based organizations and an October 28, 2021 Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters event, “Advancing Community-Based Access to Justice”, involving representatives from four Canadian community-based organizations.


As Julie Mathews, Executive Director of CLEO (and at the time the recipient of the Law Foundation of Ontario’s Community Leadership in Justice Fellowship), and Professor David Wiseman, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, indicate in their 2020 discussion paper, Community Justice Help: Advancing Community-Based Access to Justice, “community justice help is an important and valid component of the broader ecosystem of access to justice services” (p.6). (The paper makes recommendations for strengthening the role of community-based organizations’ contributions to increasing access to justice at pp.53 to 54; however, I am not addressing these here.)

With a panel of representatives from community-based organizations, the Action Committee’s event, the second session in its People Centred Justice Series, illustrated some common themes in the significant role these organizations play. The organizations involved were the Unemployed Workers’ Help Centre in Regina and Saskatoon (“Workers Help Centre”); The Today Family Violence Centre (known as “The Today Centre”) in Edmonton; l’ Organisation de l’Education et d’information logement de Côte-des-Neiges (“Organisation de l’Education”) in Montreal; and the FCJ Refugee Centre (“the Refugee Centre”) in Toronto. (For more detailed information about the Refugee Centre, see Mathews and Wiseman, pp.66-67.)

In its 2013 final report in its family law project, one of the Law Commission of Ontario’s core recommendations promoted the contribution that “trusted intermediaries” could make to assist unrepresented litigants access justice (see here or here). The Report noted, “Trusted intermediaries have the potential to be an important linchpin in addressing the barriers [the Report] identified in accessing the justice system. Because of their ties with the communities they serve, they have a knowledge of and sensitivity to the challenges posed by the diverse needs of their constituents. ” (LCO, p.63).

As I said in an earlier Slaw post on “Recognizing Trusted Intermediaries as a Systematic Part of the Legal System“,

We can think about the legal system as a flexible web … that links various actors that communicate with each other as needed, either to provide a referral for an individual seeking assistance or for the actors to obtain information or other assistance that would enable them to perform their role more effectively. The links would go in both directions. While we tend to think of trusted intermediaries as referring clients to legal service providers, it could also be that a legal service provider realizes that the help that someone needs (or some part of the help) is better provided by the trusted intermediary.

In this discussion, I’m focusing on three elements or characteristics of community-based organizations, which Mathews and Wiseman and the speakers at the Action Committee event highlighted:

  • they are often the first place people go for help in addressing their problems;
  • they usually do not themselves provide legal advice, but often involve legal practioners in their services;
  • they specialize in a particular area (housing, domestic violence or refugee issues, for example), but are able to provide a holistic service to their clients through reference to other sources of help.
  • With these and other characteristics in mind, Mathews and Wiseman propose a framework for supporting community-based organizations in their work, comprising three elements:

  • community justice helpers have the knowledge, skills and experience they need;
  • they work within a not-for-profit organization and an ethical infrastructure; and,
  • they provide holistic support to meet clients’ multi-dimensional needs.
  • (Mathews and Wiseman, pp.5-6, 22)


    Rebecca Sandefur, the Keynote Speaker at the Action Committee’s event, spoke about how people do not always recognize the legal aspects of justice problems and often begin to address their problems by seeking help from trusted sources. The community organizations whose representatives spoke at the event can be counted among these “trusted sources”.

    As Mathews and Wiseman explain, community-based organizations have particular advantages in working with people who are low-income or experience other disadvantage and it therefore makes sense that they constitute a front-line (and sometimes the final line) for assisting with these people’s legally-related problems:

    Given the life circumstances and needs of people who experience disadvantages, enabling and supporting not-for-profit, community-based organizations to assist them is both practical and appropriate. It is practical because these organizations are already working with these clients and providing
    assistance at no cost. It is appropriate because workers at these organizations understand the social context of their clients, are skilled in engaging them and have earned their trust. (Mathews and Wiseman, p.14)


    Recognizing that community-based organizations have a particular part to play in advancing access to justice that is independent of the formal legal system helps understand people’s needs. Mathews and Wiseman identify a significant difference between “access to justice” and “access to the legal system”, recognizing that justice may be achieved even when someone does not enter the legal system (and, I would add, justice may not be achieved when sought only through the legal system) (Mathews and Wiseman, p.29).

    Those approaching trusted sources do not always appreciate that they have a legal problem, as Sandefur says. Nevertheless, to provide the most effective service for their clients in many cases, community-based organizations have established links with the legal profession.

    The most desirable arrangement for problems that have a legal element is that community-based organizations and lawyers have an interrelationship that makes most effective use of the particular knowledge, experience and skills each brings. Workers at community organizations are more likely to understand the social context in which their clients live, for example, and may attract a greater degree of trust from their clients than do lawyers. However, they may also complement the lawyers’ work by gathering documents and accompanying clients to hearings. (See Mathews and Wiseman, p.16, for more on this interrelationship.)

    Community organizations often have on-going relationships with legal providers, including, community legal clinics, to whom they can turn for assistance or to whom they may refer their clients. (On the relationships with community legal clinics, see Mathews and Wiseman, pp.35-36, and more generally with legal practitioners, pp.37-40.)

    Community organizations do run into barriers that impede their work, such as fear of being charged by law societies for unauthorized practice of law or prohibitions at the federal level in relation to refugees. I am not addressing these issues here, but see Mathews and Wiseman for a discussion of them and especially a consideration of what providing legal advice really means (Mathews and Wiseman, pp.17-20 and ch.5).

    As Mathews and Wiseman point out, the Law Society of Ontario (“the LSO”) has established a program that allows civil society organizations (“CSO”s) to employee legal providers directly to clients the community organization serves (Mathews and Wiseman, p.34). (See Law Society of Ontario, “Civil Society Organizations” for the program.) The LSO does not regulate the CSO, but does regulate those legal providers embedded within the CSO. As the website shows (as of November 8, 2021), few organizations have made use of this initiative.

    Some organizations partner with legal agencies; for example, Kristine Mallorca explained that when The Today Centre receives legal questions, the helper will ask student legal services what to say in response.

    Luiz Alberto Matas advises that The Refugee Centre has access to a pro bono lawyer to assist clients with immigration issues. It works the other way, too, says Diana Gallego, also from the Refugee Centre: the Centre receives referrals from lawyers when the lawyer’s client can no longer afford a lawyer or must deal with other issues, such as domestic violence. to be addressed outside the legal system.

    Camille Thompson described the work of L’Organisation de l’Education de Côte-des-Neiges. It provides legal information and education, much like Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO), except that the Quebec agency operates in a Montreal neighbourhood and is limited to housing matters. But it also participates directly in the legal system by providing support for people who are “stuck in the legal system” trying to address housing problems (such as pests or rent issues), as well as attending hearings with them, for example.

    One exception to the general “rule” that the community-based organizations do not themselves provide legal advice is the Workers Centre, whose executive director, Mark Crawford, explained that they have received permission from the Saskatchewan Law Society to provide legal advice.


    One thread running throughout the presentations is the interaction with other organizations and agencies. The holistic nature of people’s problems requires a holistic approach. Although there may be a legal element, there are often other aspects affecting the legal problem, hiding it or exacerbating it, for example.

    For instance, Sandefur referred to “embedding” social workers, librarians, lawyers and others within a trusted community organization; an example she gave was the presence of lawyers and community health workers within an organization addressing homelessness. As well, she described “mapping” to identify existing helpers that can be supplemented by services supportive of the original mandate (manifesting “tentacles”, to use Sandefur’s term). This broader reach is common to the organizations at the event.

    The LCO’s family law report promoted collaboration among agencies addressing different aspects of the same problem; in the context of that project, this meant an integrated response to family law matters. However, it does not take long to realize that “family law’ is merely a setting off point that could involve all the issues discussed in the Committee on Access to Justice event.

    Community-based organizations, as evidenced by the four agencies represented at the Access to Justice Committee’s event, tend to take a more holistic approach than do most lawyers even though their mandate may involve a specific kind of problem (such as failure to obtain employment insurance or the experience of domestic violence). This does not mean that lawyers do not refer clients to other sources of help as required, they do, especially in certain areas of law; however, doing so is not necessarily a core part of what they do. (On the community-based ties, see Mathews and Wiseman, pp.7, 25, and the LCO’s family law report, pp. 73ff., for example.)

    The Unemployed Workers Help Centre, for example, is connected with 150 organizations. Mark Crawford described the referral to these agencies as the “human element”, dealing with issues other than employment insurance, whether the Help Centre is able to deal with the employment insurance matter or not.

    Recognizing and responding to problems other than (but often related to) the domestic violence that brought their clients to them is integral to how The Today Centre works with their clients. They know that other problems are exacerbated when they occur in the context of domestic violence and they facilitate conversations between their clients and external agencies. One aspect of their “three pronged approach” to addressing domestic violence is the provision of referrals to external agencies for long-term support.

    The Refugee Centre, too, views their clients in a holistic way, facilitating access to housing, food or covid-19 vaccinations, for example, through collaboration with external agencies.


    Community-based organizations constitute a very strong link in the chain that forms the justice system. They have a close connection to and knowledge about the circumstances and needs of those requiring the assistance of the system, particularly those who are disadvantaged or vulnerable.

    One aspect of their work in particular, I’d suggest (along with others, including Mathews and Wiseman in their recommendations) is their mode of operation. It is built on responding to the interrelated needs of their clients, not by providing a wide array of serves themselves. but by focusing on their specialties and by forming connections with other organizations, including legal providers. The speakers at the Action Committee event spoke in detail about this approach, which responds to the whole person. As a result, identification of the impact of other events in people’s lives on what is perceived as a legal problem and the clarification of whether a problem has legal elements or not allow a more comprehensive response.

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