But Now a Lawyer Comes to Them – the North Halton and Wellington County Rural Mobile Law Van and Winter Indoor Venues
Bringing people-centered justice to all will fail if we wait for people to come to the door of a law office asking for help. Justice must be made as accessible as possible by going out to where people live or spend much of their time. The rural mobile law van operating in the Wellington County and North Halton area just west of the City of Toronto is so far showing success in expanding access to justice in a rural area by extending that proactive offer of service, making legal assistance at least more accessible than before. A six-month pilot project was carried out between early May and the end of October in 2019, visiting 12 communities in rural Wellington County. A second three-year project is currently under way, including a summer rural mobile law van and winter venues. The new addition of winter venues means that assistance is available for an extended period in the same 7 locations visited by the summer law van, and there are more frequent visits than was the case for the 2019 project. Rural Law Van 2 is a joint project being carried out by the Legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County and Halton Community Legal Services and funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario.
Expanding access to justice in this way can be a messy process. Determining what towns within the rural area should be visited in order to optimize the number of visits and the number of people assisted is, to a degree, a process of trial and error. Establishing what the expectations should be for the number of people coming to the winter venues for assistance compared with the summer mobile law van venues is similarly uncertain. How to use social media to attract the attention of people within the rural area and the possibilities for using on-line assistance in the mix of on-line and in-person approaches remain open. The process can be a messy one in other ways too. The weather presents challenges for the outdoor rural mobile van. Apart from the fine days, it can be cold, rainy, windy, hot or humid but if the van is scheduled to be there it must, along with the people in the community who are also anticipated to be there going about their everyday lives. Inclement winter weather makes it necessary to establish indoor winter locations so that access to justice is not only a summer remit. The summer and winter locations are quite different and figuring out how to make them both effective is challenging. Some days only a few people show up asking for assistance. Some days there are many people, making the day hectic. There is also no advance knowledge of the types of problems for which people will seek advice. Messy and being out of the comfort of a law office, are normal features of this project.
This article focuses on the first year of the current three-year project. The results of the 2019 project are documented in a project evaluation. In 2021, the rural mobile law van made between 7 and 25 visits to seven communities in North Halton and neighbouring Wellington County between early May and the end of September. The law van parks in a highly visible location intended to attract as much passer-by attention as possible. Advance notices are posted on community Facebook pages. The dates of visits by the law van were also shared with community agencies. A large sign offering free legal advice was placed beside the street close to where the van was parked for the day.
Between early May and the end of September 2021, the rural mobile law van provided help to 408 people in the seven communities with problems of fairness and justice. This was more than the 382 people served in 12 communities in 2019 over a similar time period. In 2021 the number of communities was smaller but the number of visits to each community was greater. The increased number of people assisted is an indication of the depth of undiscovered legal problems and unmet need in this rural area.
Importantly, the law van extended access to justice in terms of the range of problems with which people were assisted as well as the number of people helped. People received advice with a very broad range of problems, more varied than the typical high frequency problem types. The main problem categories were housing (23.3%), family (22.6%), wills and Power of Attorney (14.0%) and employment (7.9%), making up slightly more than two thirds of all problems. However, almost one third of the problems for which people requested help represented broadly varying issues. These included provincial offences, property law, mental health, criminal matters, name change, business law, insurance, affidavits, debt, and consumer and social benefits. Social benefits issues were recorded 14 times.
Between about 20% and 50% of people assisted at the van were given legal advice, defined as advice provided by a lawyer or caseworker about the specific circumstances of the individual. Referrals were made to other organizations, mainly other sources of legal advice such as the Law Society lawyer referral service. The remainder of people were given referrals to other sources of assistance.
The rural mobile law van is encouraging people to ask for legal help for the first time. Remarkably, the majority of the people assisted, 81.3%, indicated that they had no previous contact with either the Halton Community Legal Clinic or the Legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County.
Based on data collected at the two North Halton communities, a majority of people are disadvantaged. When asked about their main source of income, 62.5% said some form of social assistance and 10.4% said they had no income, making up 72.9% of people assisted. 27.1% were employed; however, no data on level of income was collected. It is not clear why the open, proactive law van should attract such a large percentage of disadvantaged people.
The summer rural mobile law van is highly localized. This is important if access to justice is to be extended beyond the towns visited by the van. Between 66.7% and 91.0% said they lived in the town where the van was located that day. On the other side of the coin, between one third and one tenth of people receiving assistance travelled from other places. Some of these locations were within 10 or 15 kilometers but some travelled from places 50 to 80 kilometers away or more. This suggests the possibility for attracting large numbers of people from places other than the seven primary locations.
How people learned about the van supports the localized character of the van but, at the same time, suggests the possibility of expansion. About 48.0% of people receiving assistance learned about the law van from driving or walking by. This is consistent with the localized character of the van. However, 38.0% said they first learned about the van on Facebook. Along with the people who travelled from other areas, this supports the potential to use social media to attract people from areas beyond the immediate location of the law van.
The winter venues operated for a shorter period of time than the summer rural mobile law van. There is far less data from which to draw even preliminary inferences. However, it appears—based on numbers of people assisted pro-rated for the number of visits—that the winter venues are not attracting as many people as the summer law van. There may be ways to increase the numbers coming to the winter venues, such as through the use of social media. Another possibility is providing on-line assistance, alone or in combination with in-person help. However, the summer van appears to have an enormous advantage with the high degree of visibility and accessibility of being in a high-traffic location in a town that may be the center of much activity among people in the area. More needs to be understood about the degree to which the mobile law van fits with the nature of rural communities.
The high degree of accessibility appears to be the key to the success of the rural mobile law van. The mobile law van represents the essence of outreach, going to where people are at. However, there must be more to it than that. The law van seems to be tapping into a deep well of unmet legal need, echoing the legacy finding from the contemporary body of legal needs research that legal problems are ubiquitous among the public. The presence of the law van in the town center, its accessibility in peoples’ familiar surroundings, may be a trigger that unlocks the acquiescence they have experienced with the problem. This acquiescence possibly results from the barriers that are familiar from legal problems research and the experience of practitioners, not knowing if anything can be done, not knowing where to go for help and perhaps thinking that the problem is not serious enough to seek a lawyer and that doing so would cost too much anyway. But now, a lawyer comes to you with a proactive offer of free legal help provided in a way and in a place that maximizes accessibility. This is probably how the rural mobile law van unlocks the problem of people-centered justice for all. During the next two years of the project, a more solid understanding must be developed about how this works at the summer rural mobile law van and, especially, how to make it work better for the indoor winter venues.
Ab Currie, Ph.D.
Senior Research Fellow
Canadian Forum on Civil Justice
 Ab Currie, Ph.D., Someone Out There Helping: Final Report of the WellCoMs Mobile Van Project, Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, November 2019.
 Georgetown and Acton in the North Halton area and Mt Forest, Fergus, Clifford, Arthur and Palmerston in Wellington County.