Authors:Sue James
Last updated:2023-11-09
Lessons from Canada
Marc Bloomfield
Sue James recounts her Canadian trip earlier this year, where she visited various organisations whose aim is to solve people’s legal problems earlier and more holistically.
‘It makes me nervous,’ Ryan Peck told me when I met him at HALCO (HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario) in downtown Toronto. He rolled his eyes as he said: ‘I’m not being an elitist lawyer, it’s just a reality, a trusted intermediary can only do so much.’
I was in Ontario to look at the role of community workers as ‘trusted intermediaries’ (or ‘trusted help’, as they are otherwise known), who are assisting people to resolve their legal problems. I was interested in finding new ways that we could reach our clients in the face of the huge funding cuts, and trying to get to them sooner, before they reach crisis point.
I knew that people in the UK were seeking legal advice from non-legal sources and frequently from health professionals. At court, on housing possession duty days, I’m usually the first lawyer that people have seen, as they haven’t been able to access help beforehand. They are there because they are losing their home, but that’s often just one of the many problems they have, which are increasingly complex and usually come in clusters: an employment issue can lead to stress, loss of a job and then loss of income, which may mean an inability to pay the rent, welfare benefit problems, leading to eviction and family breakdown.
I described the housing court duty scheme two years ago as ‘trying to fix a leak with a roll of sticky tape’.1Sue James, ‘I am a legal aid lawyer for people facing eviction – they are the real Daniel Blakes’, Guardian, 18 March 2017. My experience is that it’s getting worse, and it’s not just the effects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), but the cuts to the justice budget, welfare and court reform, and austerity generally. The cumulative effect, though, is to hit hardest those who are most in need.
With legal aid now out of scope for most of these problems, I am not able to refer them to another lawyer to help. It is distressing to see people under so much stress, and I feel stymied because of the lack of options to resolve their problems. Simply telling them to resolve the issue themselves isn’t appropriate for most of the people I see; being armed with legal information is not enough for them to deal with their legal problems and complex benefit issues. I wanted to investigate new ways of collaborative working, to reach clients earlier if possible, and get to those most vulnerable: the ones the government left behind when it cut legal aid.
What’s happening elsewhere?
I read that health/justice partnerships, which started in the United States, were growing across Australia. Lawyers were in hospitals and GPs’ surgeries, and were making a difference to legal, as well as healthcare, outcomes. Often people presented with a medical issue but the cause of the problem was legal, and until the legal issue was resolved the doctor was just treating the symptom. A perfect example is poor housing: fix the heating, the windows, the source of the problem, and the health condition goes away. I found that lawyers were actually good for your health.
And it was while I was researching multi-disciplinary approaches to social lawyering that I came upon the trusted intermediary terminology. It was a concept being used in a project called Connecting Ottawa in Ontario. Front-line community workers were the ‘trusted person’, sandwiched between the lawyer and the client, and they were making a difference.
How to get a closer look?
I started to talk about these different approaches – to anyone who would listen. It was after one session that a colleague suggested the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. I was incredulous at first, that Churchill might fund my project, but then looked it up when I got home. I found that Churchill believed people should travel to learn and bring back those ideas to inform and make change. I applied for a Travelling Fellowship, got shortlisted, and was successful. I felt lucky. There had been around 1,100 applicants in 2017 and just 150 places.
The process tests your idea and your plan – robustly – but by this time I knew my stuff on health/justice partnerships and trusted intermediaries pretty well. I was also fortunate to have the support of Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, who is not only Australian, but also has a number of contacts there and in Canada, which made my task easier.
My plan
Part 1: Ontario and Québec, Canada. Two weeks in July 2018, looking specifically at the idea of trusted intermediaries, but also at a number of the 74 legal clinics that advise and represent on poverty law issues in Toronto, Ottawa and Montréal.
Part 2: Australia. The plan was (and still is) to spend a month there visiting health/justice partnerships, concentrating on Melbourne and Sydney, but with a trip up to Alice Springs and Darwin to look at their projects as contrast. I’ll be heading there in February 2019.
First leg: Canada
Lenny Abramowicz, who heads up the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario (ACLCO), had put me in touch with a mixture of neighbourhood and specialist legal clinics to enable me to experience a variety of organisations across Ontario. One was integrated into a healthcare facility; others were in hubs or just stand-alone clinics. I began by visiting a number of organisations across Toronto and then met with Lenny, Ryan and others downtown, where ACLCO and the specialist clinics are housed.
I asked Lenny what he thought of trusted intermediaries. His reservations weren’t as strong as Ryan’s had been, but he was still sceptical: ‘Innovation is important, but the backbone of our service is good old-fashioned poverty law practice, and we are able to do this because of a strong commitment to core funding.’
But what happens if you don’t have the funding to resolve those core poverty issues? How do you reach the people who need help? This was, after all, the reason why I was there. Lenny was aware of what had happened in the UK; he knew about LASPO but Ryan didn’t, so I told him. His guttural response: ‘You let that happen!?’ made me feel personally responsible and, to be honest, ashamed.
Once aware, Ryan’s view altered: ‘In your terrain, there’s a deeper access to justice issue. If there was nowhere for people to go for their problems, then we would work differently.’
Trusted help
The report, Trusted help (February 2018), was the culmination of research funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario. It found that the trusted intermediary was a key component of access to justice: many people, especially those with low incomes, or who were vulnerable, were not receiving help with their legal problems or were not finding a way to get to lawyers without intervention from a trusted intermediary in a community organisation.
I met Julie Mathews, who was one of the authors of the report. She was keen for me to understand that this project isn’t about public legal education as we know it in the UK. It is about training community workers, to give them the tools they may need to assist people, and to refer them to lawyers, with whom they are networked, when they need one.
The value of community workers in playing a trusted intermediary role when a client’s problem includes a legal component was documented through interviews, focus groups and surveys. Key factors included the client’s comfort and trust, a holistic approach to helping clients resolve multiple aspects of their problem and the opportunity for early intervention to prevent a legal problem from escalating. Front-line community workers were sometimes the only source of assistance, even with their fully funded 74 legal clinics.
Connecting Ottawa
Research published in December 2008, Connecting across language and distance, again funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario, found that there were two key barriers to access to justice: language and distance. The foundation provided grant funding to explore how access to justice could be improved for people living in rural or remote areas and for linguistic minorities. Gary Stein from Community Legal Services of Ottawa applied for the funding to explore improvements for linguistic minorities in 2009 and was successful. He was excited about the progress made since then, and that I had found the project 3,329 miles away, while sitting at my desk in London.
Speaking with him, I was interested to find that the project, Connecting Ottawa, has both a social worker and a lawyer on staff and includes a network of legal and non-legal organisations. Gary told me that they had found this creates a more holistic approach that can respond to the complex needs of their clients. I recalled that Law Centres in the UK had also employed social workers in their early days.
The project is located at the Vanier Community Service Centre and shares facilities with the Clinique Juridique Francophone de l’Est d’Ottawa (Francophone Legal Clinic of Ottawa East), the only French-speaking legal clinic in Ontario. The collaboration between legal and non-legal service providers is a powerful access to justice tool. Here I met with René Guitard, who runs the legal clinic. I found that partnership working ensures that people are treated holistically, with over 40 community health, legal, immigration, disability and social service agencies involved. It also reduces referral fatigue, increases connection among organisations, and builds capacity of front-line workers. In turn, client issues are resolved more quickly and efficiently.
So what next?
I think Ryan is right to be nervous: trusted intermediaries can only do so much, but if they complement the lawyers, instead of replacing them, they can make a difference. Timely intervention means that issues can be resolved earlier, and this in turn keeps costs down. The range of partnerships means that legal and non-legal organisations work alongside each other and there is a multi-disciplinary approach to resolving legal problems.
In the UK, we have barriers to joint working because of inadequate funding and siloed approaches to resolving legal problems.
However, in the UK, we have barriers to joint working because of inadequate funding and siloed approaches to resolving legal problems. If Law Centres had core funding, they could treat the person as a whole. We know clients don’t have just one single-issue problem, and advising on possession days without being able to resolve the benefit issue (as it’s out of scope for legal aid) isn’t effective; it’s very short-sighted, because most cases are benefit-related, and it’s costly.
It’s clear that in a legal system set up for experts, many people need direct help or social support to deal effectively with legal problems. Trusted intermediaries, in organisations where people are already accessing services, can be the link between clients and lawyers, but can also provide information and help where appropriate.
‘Information comes best wrapped in a person’ was a phrase I heard in Montréal. I loved the phrase, but I think what I found in Ontario was more than that, it was information wrapped in a trusted person.
Let’s see what I find in Australia.