From Need to Vulnerability

Need to Vulnerability: A Global View

In a summary of recent global developments in access to justice delivered by Professor Avrom Sherr, Director of the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies in London at the International Legal Aid Group Meeting in Boston in June 2023, Professor Sherr observed that there is a movement in service delivery evident in many places recasting the idea of need to include vulnerability. The innovative work being done by the Mobile Rural Law Van in Wellington County and North Halton illustrates this development.

The greater attention to vulnerability is a is part of a wider re-focusing of legal needs. Building on the prevalence and types of the problems faced by different segments of the public, the re-focusing pays greater attention to the ways in which the public responds to legal problems and the ways in which those responses must be considered to appropriately and adequately meet the needs of the public. Developing more effective ways to help people who are highly vulnerable, socially isolated, disadvantaged or overwhelmed by their circumstances is a central feature of the re-focusing, but not the only one. The extent of people’s legal capability is one example of the broader set of factors that are gaining greater attention in the re-focusing within legal needs research and practice.

A Story of Vulnerability from the Law Van

The person whose story is told in this summary of an intake note had been seen around the location where the Law Van sets up nearly every week since the beginning of May when the van began its weekly summer schedule. This day in mid-August was the first time he spoke with someone at the van to ask for help. The man is homeless. He lives on the riverbank in the area. At first, he asked if he could borrow a cell phone. He said that someone had his phone and he needed to call it. The Rural Community Worker, M, loaned him her personal phone. Later in the day, the man came back, saying he had an idea to pass along, and he began talking about harm reduction. M told the man that the Law Van sometimes parks alongside with the GW Community Health Van, a mobile clinic offering harm reduction services. M asked the man if he has ever visited the Community Health Van. He said he had not, but stated he was aware of another mobile addictions service. M told him what the Community Health Van provides and that the van parks at X street by the bank every second Wednesday. He also indicated that he needed help with income tax. The Law Van is helping him connect with a service in the coming weeks.

Helping the Most Vulnerable

The man in this story from the law van is among the most vulnerable in society. He was seen around the Law Van location every week from May to mid-August before coming in to talk. His desire to talk about harm reduction may have been a round about way of expressing his needs and asking for help. One can only imagine his struggle to feel trust enough to come forward. This illustrates what an outreach service like the Law Van has to do in order to reach the most vulnerable. The basic features of the Law Van are going out to where people live or spend much of their time, building a presence in the community and maximizing accessibility by locating in high visibility places in small rural places with a highly proactive offer of service. So far, the van has attracted about 500 people asking for assistance during each six-month summer period and about half that number at the fixed winter venues in the same small towns. A large percentage of people coming to both the summer and winter venues say they have had no previous contact with either of the two community legal clinics involved in the project. Although not definitive, this suggests that the project is serving people who would otherwise not have received assistance. However, the extent, the nature, and the range of needs are greater and more complex than what is illustrated by the 500 people with unmet needs who do not have the daunting barriers experienced by highly vulnerable people. Reaching the most vulnerable is part of a continuing effort by the Law Van, both the mobile summer and winter venues, to meet those complex needs.

A big part of the task is being out there “where people are at” regularly, week after week, one year following the next building a presence in the communities being served, being part of the people and the community, earning the identity that you are “from around here” and you will be here if they need your help. This is a big investment compared with sitting in your office waiting for people to come to the door asking for service. Being out there week after week seems to have allowed the vulnerable man in the story from the van to finally make his somewhat tentative approach. Gently encouraging him to go to another service that may be able to meet more of his immediate needs was an important way in which the Law Van helps very vulnerable people. This is an investment that cannot be easily translated into simple measures of cost per case.

Serving Vulnerable People Elsewhere

The Expresso Legal Project in Victoria State, Australia* has similarities to the rural Wellington County/North Halton Law Van. This project draws its name from the coffee and snacks served to people who come for help. The approach is an effort to gain the trust of “people in a harsh predicament” by signaling “we are one of you.” Vulnerable people includes single-person households, victims experiencing trauma from domestic violence and other forms of abuse, and people who are overwhelmed by their circumstances. These are situations in which “trust is given more quickly” by a welcoming outreach but where a “portal, a website, a telephone queue are often counterproductive.” The experience of the Expresso Legal Project is that “mobile legal services operating continuously on a regular schedule are more expensive and labour intensive than sitting in an office waiting for clients to appear, but the effort is absolutely worthwhile.” The experience of the Wellington County/North Halton mobile rural Law Van is the same. It may be the only way.

*Thanks to Chris Howse, Principal Solicitor, Wittlesea Community Legal Services in Victoria, Australia for his insights about the Expresso Legal Project.

Ab Currie, Senior Research Fellow
Canadian Forum on Civil Justice

Maddy Smith, Rural Community Worker
Legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County

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