Column

Making Justice Available to Everyone: The Rural Mobile Law Van in North Halton and Wellington County, Ontario

Justice is fair when it is available to everyone. While everyone agrees that access to justice is important, our system struggles to meet this expectation. However, there are innovative projects underway that are having some success in meeting this daunting task. The Rural Mobile Law Van is one such innovative project that is successfully tackling the problem of identifying undiscovered legal need and bringing assistance to people who would otherwise not receive help with their legal problems. This goes beyond what the formal justice system can do. This project is contributing to a broader concept of what justice and access to justice ought to mean. The Law Van project is not peripheral to the justice system. It is, or should to be seen as, the kind of innovation that is an important part of it.

The rural mobile law van began providing service to rural Wellington County in the summer of 2019, developed by the Legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County. The community legal clinic in Guelph had long been aware from intake data that the rural areas of Wellington County were underserved. The rural mobile law van was developed as the response to this problem. The first six-month project in the summer of 2019 proved to be very successful at addressing the problem.[1] In 2021, two clinics—Halton Community Legal Services and the Legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County—collaborated on a three-year pilot study in the North Halton region and in adjacent Wellington County, building on the original 2019 project. In the three-year project, fixed locations were developed to provide services during the fall and winter months when weather in the region becomes too inclement for outdoor service. The summer Law Van operates from May to the end of October. The Van makes weekly visits to seven communities, five in the northern part of Wellington County and two in North Halton.[2] For each community visit, a high visibility location is selected to attract the attention of the maximum number of people walking or driving by. The date and location of visits are posted on community Facebook pages, information is published in community newspapers and posters are placed in places such as gas bars, churches, grocery stores and other locations where people are likely to go in the normal round of their daily activity.

During the summer of 2019 and of 2021 the Law Van attracted hundreds of people requesting assistance. Benchmarks on which to determine success seem limited in the literature. However, the numbers of people served compared favourably with the Hamilton outreach project, which operated in an urban area using a different approach to achieve a similar objective.[3] Figure 1 shows that in 2019, 454 people approached the Law Van seeking help. In 2021 the number increased by 10.8% to 503. While the comparison is not precise because of changes in the project, the data support the conclusion that the Law Van remained successful and even grew as a success during the second summer.[4]

Access to justice cannot be a summer remit only. The project was extended to fixed winter locations in libraries, church halls and other locations between October and May of 2021-2022. Figure 1 shows that the number of people visiting the winter locations was significantly less than in the summer of 2021, dropping by about 68%.

The success of the summer Law Van is probably mainly attributable to having maximized accessibility. In the summer, the Law Van goes out into the communities, where people live or spend their time. The majority of people learn about the Van by walking or driving by as they go about their day-to-day activities. In somewhat of a reverse process during the fall and winter months at the fixed locations people are invited to come to particular locations. While a variety of means such as social media and posters are used to disseminate information about the winter venues, it clearly does not work in the same way as in the summer with the mobile law van. This is evidence of the power of outreach and of a strong proactive offer of service as a strategy for expanding access to justice – going out to where people are at, to borrow from the title of the Hamilton Outreach project. However, it is clear that some work has to be done to increase the number of people using the “winter van”. It is not clear what the potential of the fall and winter locations is compared with the summer Law Van.

A remarkable feature of both the summer Van and winter venues is that the majority of people, between about 85% and 90%, had no previous contact with either the Halton or the Guelph clinics or with the Law Van. In this respect both the summer Law Van and the winter locations have achieved two important objectives of outreach, serving more people and providing service to people who would otherwise not likely receive assistance.

The main problem types for which people seek assistance from the summer Law Van and the winter locations are consistent with the national Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters’ examples of essential legal services. In addition, the problems with which people come to the Law Van for help extend to a variety of legal issues and everyday problems existing at the nexus of human adversity and the law.[5] The other category includes about a third of all problems including bankruptcy, debt, elder abuse, consumer problems, income support, criminal law, traffic and other provincial offences.

It appears as if social media is becoming increasingly important as a way in which people learn about the summer Law Van and the winter venues. This is especially true for the winter locations.

Table 2 shows that the summer Law Van and winter locations are highly localized. The majority of people requesting assistance at either the summer or winter locations say they are from the community that the Law Van visited on that particular day. In view of this localized character it is important to consider how to serve the entire rural area.

Social media has been an important tool for informing people about the schedule and locations of the summer Law Van and the winter venues. The role of social media could become increasingly important for encouraging people from communities not visited by the Van or not having fixed winter venues to take advantage of the service. Driving distances between many places in Wellington County are not great and about 10 to 20 percent of users did travel from elsewhere to summer Law Van locations. People may travel regularly among different communities to access different services, for shopping or for entertainment. Little is known about normal travel patterns and possible implications for the Law Van. However, this does not address the possible problem of people without access to transportation. Little is known about the extent to which this is a problem. Also, some people may not have access to reliable internet services, limiting the impact of a social media strategy for increasing accessibility.

During the winter of 2021-2022 the COVID pandemic led to two changes in providing assistance. Figure 4 shows that about 60% of all services at the winter venues were provided in-person. About 29% were provided by telephone, the Van Line, and about 14% were provided virtually using Zoom. This holds some promise, even after the pandemic restrictions are relaxed, of using telephone and virtual approaches to extend the reach of the Law and its winter counterpart.

The Mobile Rural Law Van is an effective form of outreach. It has been successful in expanding access to legal assistance to rural areas, a perennial problem for legal services providers everywhere. More broadly, it provides a good example of how to extend the reality of access to justice as the scale of the access problem becomes better understood. What access to justice means and how to achieve it has evolved as legal needs research has provided increasing evidence of the scale of the access problem and as the people-centered discourse emphasizing justice for all has deepened our understanding of it.[6] The futurist author William Gibson famously said that the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.[7] The Rural Mobile Law Project illustrates very well Gibson’s insight. Finally, as in Action Committee Justice Development Goal 9, which underscores the need to “Improve Funding Strategies”, funding is critical to support the capacity for innovation of legal service providers in Canada, such as the Rural Mobile Law Van.

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 in Ab Currie (ed.), The Communities Being Served are the Resources that are Needed: Innovations in Community Based Justice in Ontario, An Anthology of Canadian Research, Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, Toronto, 2022, pp. 223 – 262.

[2] In North Halton, Georgetown and Acton and in Wellington County, Mt Forest, Arthur, Fergus, Clifford and Palmerston. The 2019 project involved 12 communities in Wellington County, seven of which were dropped in 2021 in order to concentrate on higher need areas and to allow the addition of the two North Halton locations.

[3] The Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, The Hamilton Outreach Project: Meeting people Where They’re At, in Ab Currie (ed.), The Communities Being Served are the Resources That Are Needed, pp. 358 – 393.

[4] In 2019 the Rural Mobile Law Van visited 12 communities in rural Wellington County about 12 times each. In 2021 the Law Van visited 7 communities in North Halton and Wellington County with more frequent visits to some communities.

[5] Rebecca L. Sandefur, The Importance of Doing Nothing: Everyday Problems and Responses to Inaction in Pascoe Pleasence, Alexy Buck and Nigel Balmer (eds.), Transforming Lives: Law and Social Process, Legal Services Commission, London, UK, 2007, p. 113.

[6] Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, Justice for All – Final Report, 2019. UN Social Development Goal 16, Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, access to justice for all and build effective accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

[7] Accessed at http://www.goodreach.com>quotes>681-the-future-is-already-here.

Start the discussion!

Leave a Reply

(Your email address will not be published or distributed)