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Justice on the Front Line: Bringing Legal Help to People Where They Are At

The Mobile Rural Law Van and Indoor Winter Venues

This brief article is another report on the mobile rural law van and the fixed-location winter locations, referred to together as the “law van’, as the project goes through the process from pilot project to implementation as an on-going part of the delivery model. The story of the law van is one of effective innovation. It illustrates how, at its best, innovation is an on-going process. The successes and challenges, the lessons learned of an innovation are building blocks in an on-going process of helping people bring troubling problems closer to resolution.

Details about how the mobile summer van and the winter venues operate are provided in several previous articles published in this journal and posted on the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice web site.

The Objectives of Outreach

The law van and winter venues are meeting the basic objectives of outreach.

Serving more people

Beginning with the pilot project that was carried out in the summer of 2019, and the three-year implementation phase that started in 2021 the summer law van has consistently assisted about 500 people during the six-months the van operates each summer. During the first year of the winter venues in 2021-2022 the fixed-location “winter vans” assisted 160 people. In the second winter (2022-2023), the number of people assisted at the winter venues increased significantly to just over 300.

Assisting people who might otherwise not be served.

In the beginning, approximately 90% of people coming to the summer van and winter locations said they had no previous contact with either the community legal clinics or the law van. By the summer of 2023 this percentage has declined to just under 60%. People are apparently obtaining authoritative legal assistance for the first time. What other actions people may have taken to resolve their problems is not known. We do know from the legal needs literature that many people experiencing everyday legal problems do not seek help until the situation becomes desperate and do not obtain effective assistance for resolving their problems. The law van is addressing that major concern in access to justice.

The decline in the number of people having no previous contact is to be expected as the summer and winter services become more familiar fixtures in the communities being served. The law van’s encouraging greater utilization of the traditional community clinics is a good outcome and demonstrates one of the ways in which the law van is becoming integrated into the overall delivery model.

Providing people with the opportunity to find help with any problem.

In the summer of 2023 about three quarters of the problems for which people request assistance fell into a few familiar categories: housing, family law, wills and powers of attorney, criminal matters and civil litigation. It would be surprising if that were not the case. However, the remaining 25% of problems represented approximately 22 problem types, including identity theft, property disputes, elder abuse, credit repair, consumer, bankruptcy, neighbours, human rights, and property law. People view the mobile law van and the winter venues as places where they can ask for help or advice with any issue, not deterred from seeking help by doubts about whether help is available for “my problem”.

Outreach and People-Centricity

People-centered justice may be defined as attempting to take into account the manner in which people experience a problem and, on that basis, devising ways to effectively assist them. The failure or inability to take action described above is the first problem of access to justice. It arises from the behavioural and psychological barriers felt by people experiencing problems and not knowing where to turn for help. We know from decades of legal needs research and from equally long-standing clinical experience that people often do not seek authoritative help with everyday problems that likely have legal aspects, at least until the situation is desperate. People acquiesce in their problems because of the absence of legal capability. This can mean a number of things. They do not recognize the legal aspect of the problem, do not appreciate the seriousness of the problem in the early stages, do not know if help is available for that sort of problem or do not know where to go for help. There may be deeper issues. Past or present trauma may be associated with the problem, or deep experience of disadvantage that results in a degree of apathy about taking action. There may be other barriers such as physical or mental disability, lack of transportation, residence in a relatively remote area and lack of adequate internet connectivity,

This is why outreach is the foundation of people-centered justice. These barriers describe the ways in which people experience problems can inhibit their proactively seeking help. The “law van” and, in a different way, the winter venue are highly people-centered, going out to where people live or spend much of their time, helping them overcome the many reasons that may inhibit taking action. The summer and winter vans provide service in locations that to the extent possible maximize accessibility.

People-centered and Community-focused

People-centered and community-focused are companion concepts. Building collaborative arrangements with the community in a variety of ways increases the pathways through which the project helps people learn about and approach the law van for help. Many people learn about the summer law van by simply passing by, as well as through social media posts on community Facebook pages, by means of posters placed in grocery stores, coffee shops and gas stations and by word-of mouth or on-line messages from friends and relatives. In the winter venues, passing by is not a typical means of learning about the service available inside. Recently, in the winter of 2022-2023 information from community organizations was the most frequent way people learned about the indoor service. Data show that in the summer of 2023 attending community events emerged more frequently as a way people learned about the van. These changes in the ways people learn about the service suggest new and evolving ways in which the “law van” is connected with the communities being served and how more people might be reached.

About two thirds of the people requesting assistance are given referrals to other sources of help. Many of these are sources of legal assistance. However, people are also referred to community organizations, government services and to the offices of the local MP or MPP. At this point we have only anecdotal reports from people coming back to tell us what progress they are making in resolving the problem to judge the effectiveness of the referrals. The legal needs literature indicates that first referrals are often not helpful. Sometimes referral fatigue occurs as people are referred on from one unsuccessful attempt to receive help to the next. Referral fatigue is often followed by abandoning attempts to resolve the problem. By learning more about the effectiveness of referrals the law van can improve service to people and become even more firmly established as a reliable source of help in the community.

People are sometimes referred to the law van and the winter venues, most frequently by community organizations, by the offices of the local MP and MPP and by physicians’ offices. This presents the possibility of further increasing the number of people assisted by building collaborative relationships with the other organizations to which people go for help. An important aspect of collaboration might include informing community services and voluntary organizations about how the problems with which they assist their clients may have legal aspects and thus how the holistic assistance available at the law van summer and winter venues can assist them to better serve their own clients.

Resourcing the Ongoing Process of Innovation

Meeting project objectives at a particular point in time to satisfy the conditions of a funding agreement is not the end-point for expanding access to justice. Some of the lessons learned about meeting the needs of people and strengthening the capacity of community groups to work in collaboration with legal services are learned through on-going monitoring and on-the-ground experience. They are the building blocks for improvements in service delivery. During the three-year implementation phase that began in the summer of 2021 the law van project has been integrated into the on-going delivery models of the two community legal clinics involved, Halton Community Legal Service and the Legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County. The on-going service should not be a cost that is borne by the clinics themselves. Community legal clinics are not well-funded. Mechanisms should be developed so that donor organizations and core funders should recognize that adopting the good ideas for expanding legal services need to be supported following the experimental stages of piloting and early-stage implementation.

Along with this, funders should also recognize in tangible ways when an environment for innovation and experimentation has become part of the organizational cultures of the community clinics. This began 10 years ago in the Halton and Guelph clinics with the Legal Health Check-up, as the clinics began learning the practical applications of outreach and holistic service from working with the communities being served. The Legal Secondary Consultation is a successful project that grew out of the experience gained from the legal health check-up and was absorbed into the delivery models of the clinics that were involved in the pilot project. The Rural Mobile Law Van and the winter fixed locations are the latest in this process in which one innovation leads to another. Replication of a successful innovation elsewhere is an important consideration. So is scaling up within a larger system. Funders can also contribute substantially to expanding access to justice by encouraging organizational cultures of experimentation and innovation where there is evidence that the energy and willingness exist and where clinics are attempting to carry on innovation by adopting them into the on-going delivery model. 

Justice on the Front Line

The experience of the law van project to date illustrates the effectiveness of going out to the places where people live or spend their time and maximizing the accessibility of legal help to the extent practicable. It involves reaching people through the other services and activities in the community working collaboratively with access to justice services such as the law van. It involves people passing along information about the van and the winter venues through the normal patterns of communication in the community. It involves people sometimes coming to the van or to the winter venues to ask for information on behalf of friends or relatives. Certainly, people will come to the door of the clinic asking for help, but many people will not. Community-focused and people-centred justice built on outreach can make progress toward meeting the needs of the whole community.

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

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