Sustainability, It’s Not Just About Money: Reflections on Sustainability From the Rural Mobile Law Van

The rural mobile law van began operating in rural Wellington County, Ontario in the summer of 2019 and is now at the mid-point of a three-year extension from 2021 to 2024 in Wellington County and in adjacent Halton Region.[1] Several articles about this project have been published on The Canadian Forum on Civil Justice (CFCJ) web site and on Slaw. This article discusses the sustainability of the Law Van project.[2]

When people think about the sustainability of a legal services project they tend to think first in terms of financial sustainability. Does it cost more than the amount that funders can afford? This might apply to government as a funder since, for example, legal aid is predominantly publicly funded. The budgets of agencies and departments are compartmentalized within government and are limited by that reality. However, the question how much can we afford remains somewhat suspect. It is universally agreed that legal aid is underfunded relative to need. Expenditures on legal aid are tiny relative to government spending in other areas. A more honest way to ask the how much can we afford question might be how much is government willing to spend on the poor.[3]

Some research has looked at sustainability through the lens of cost-benefit analysis.[4] This approach is especially useful for comparing several different approaches to providing services within one service delivery environment or within similar service environments. If the cost-benefit ratio of a service is less than 1 (more money spent than measurable tangible and intangible benefits) the service might be reasonably considered non-sustainable, although the momentum of vested interests can sometimes resist the evidence. On the positive side, as the ratio of benefits to costs increases to greater benefits for the money spent, the case for sustainability is stronger. In the definition and measurement process of empirical research, cost-benefit analysis very usefully encourages us to think hard about what we want to achieve and what is being gained from a service. One possible problem, however, is that funding tends to come from one source while benefits are spread among many responsibility centres. There may not be much direct advantage of the benefits to the immediate funder. However, as recent community-based justice research carried out in Africa demonstrates, well-designed and well-executed cost-benefit research can lead to the discovery of benefits that had not been previously known or appreciated.[5]

Many of the features that make a project sustainable are not monetary but lie in the organization and delivery of a project. These can be similar to the non-tangible benefits examined in the three African studies. This is a lesson being learned from the Rural Mobile Law Van project, which is currently at about the mid-point of a three-year funding cycle. One aspect of the Law Van project that makes it sustainable is a high degree of accessibility. The summer van goes out to where people live or spend much of their time. It parks in high visibility places in the towns visited, often in places adjacent to other community services. A large percentage of people who come to the Law Van requesting assistance learn about it by passing by as they go about their daily activities. The winter venues maximize accessibility by parking on the premises of other social services agencies. Notably, the Law Van attracts people who may not yet have previously received assistance. The majority of people requesting assistance have had no previous contact with either of the two community legal clinics involved or with the Law Van.

The use of social media has been an increasingly important aspect of the Law Van enhancing its sustainability. The schedule for the summer Law Van and the winter venues is posted on community Facebook pages. Facebook analytics reveals that the number of people viewing and sharing the Facebook posts reaches into the hundreds. The percentage of people learning about the van using social media has increased relative to passing by. Social media accounts for almost all people coming to the winter locations for help. Unsolicited comments by people coming to the Law Van suggests that people pass information about the van to friends and relatives through social media, encouraging them to go to the Law Van for assistance.

Another pillar of sustainability is the high degree to which the Law Van fits within the rural culture of the communities. During the first year in which the summer Law Van operated in Wellington County (2019), slightly more than 20% of people visiting the van did not have a problem to discuss. They came out of curiosity to learn more about something new in their community. This is an expression of the proprietary sense of place in rural areas. In a large city people may have walked by and noticed but they would not likely have come over to find out about this new presence in their area. People in rural areas place a high value on face-to-face interaction and that forms an important basis for trust. The unsolicited remarks made by people coming to the van indicates that it is something that people in the communities talk about, come to obtain information on behalf of friends and relatives and encourage friends to go to for help. By showing up in the communities week after week, one year after the next, the Law Van has earned its place as part of the communities being served. The Law Van is from around here.

The community being served is a sustaining resource for the Law Van. There is a social organization of helping in every community, made up of many social services and voluntary associations. The Law Van project engages in collaborative partnerships with these community organizations. These partnerships strengthen the capacity of other helping agencies in the community by putting into practice the recognition that the problems they all assist their own clients and constituent members with are very often complex blends of legal and non-legal aspects. The summer van and the winter venues routinely refer people to other organizations for assistance. The van receives referrals from other organizations. The summer van has developed arrangements to operate in the parking lots adjacent to other service organizations. The winter van locates on the premises of service organizations for its weekly stops in the communities. The Law Van is putting into practice the principle that the community being helped is the resource that is needed to extend the reach of legal aid and expand access to justice.

At the mid-point of a three-year funding cycle, the Law Van appears to be effective and sustainable. Sustainability is the capacity to maintain or improve the state and availability of desirable materials or conditions over the long term.[6] The desirable public good here is access to justice. It is sustainable because of the way it is organized within the communities being served. It is sustainable because the community legal clinics involved are committed to it and are prepared to provide considerable in-kind support, most notably the lawyers and paralegals who attend the summer and winter locations. Of course, the cost is an important consideration and cost-benefit is an especially useful lens. But sustainability isn’t all about the money.

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


[1] The Law Van project is being generously funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario.

[2] A longer version titled Strengths and Opportunities for Sustainability: The Mobile Rural Law Van and Winter Venues in North Halton and Wellington County, Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, Toronto, 2023 is forthcoming on the CFCJ web site.

[3] David Luban, The Rights to Legal Services in A.A. Paterson and T. Goriely (eds.), Resourcing Civil Justice, Oxford University Press, 1996 pp. 39 – 65.

[4] Trevor C. W. Farrow and Ab Currie, Exploring Community-Based Justice, Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, Toronto, 2023; Felix Marco Conteh, Yakama Manty Jones, Sonkita Conteh, Henry Mbawa & Aisha Fofana Ibrahim, The Costs and Benefits of Community-based Justice in Sierra Leone (Sierra Leone: Center for Alternative Policy Research & Innovation, January 2022), online: CAPRI; Jill Cottrell Ghai, ed, Alternative Approaches to Access to Justice in Kenya: A Cost Benefit Analysis (Nairobi: Katiba Institute & University of Nairobi, 15 November 2021), online: IDRC; Winnie Martins, Sophia Mukorera & Carol Friedman, Scaling Access to Justice Research Collaboration, Final Technical Report (Scottsville, Pietermaritzburg: Centre for Community Justice and Development, 2022), online: IDRC

[5] Ibid.

[6] Harrington

Start the discussion!

Leave a Reply

(Your email address will not be published or distributed)