Report on mobile legal aid pilot program: ‘Embeddedness’ in community is key

More than one-fourth of visitors approached the van with family law issues

Report on mobile legal aid pilot program: ‘Embeddedness’ in community is key

In a report released by the Legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County, shedding light into its program to provide mobile legal services to the residents of rural Wellington, the importance of “embeddedness” and of “making legal aid a presence in the community” is highlighted.

From May to October 2019, the Wellington County Mobile Legal Service (WellCoMs) van, operated by representatives of the legal clinic, made a total of 128 visits to 12 communities, receiving a total of 586 visitors. While a lawyer, paralegal or community legal worker would occasionally help out, most of the time two outreach workers attended the vehicle. 

Not being qualified to dispense legal advice, these outreach workers provided referrals to 28 different community organizations, as well as handed out pamphlets produced by Community Legal Education Ontario, says the report written by Ab Currie, senior research fellow at the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice.

The six-month pilot program had been established by the Guelph legal clinic in an attempt to address the barriers of geographical distance and dispersion to providing legal aid to rural and remote areas.

“The lessons that have been learned in this project will hopefully not only be of benefit to the Guelph clinic but will contain useful lessons learned for legal services providers in Canada and elsewhere with mandates to provide access to justice services in areas outside main population concentrations,” states the report.

Aside from expending effort to establish a physical presence in these communities through the WellCoMs van, the outreach workers also tried to increase public awareness of the program through social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Visitors to the van also had the option to connect with caseworkers at the legal clinic through Skype. 

The report recognizes the importance of “creating an awareness of legal issues in people’s consciousness and becoming part of the social organization of helping in the community.” Data suggests that the mobile delivery of legal services has helped people who would not have otherwise sought legal assistance. The findings of the report also support the existence of “hidden legal need” ⁠— people often do not see their problems as legal issues until this is pointed out to them.

Residents approached the van with a variety of legal problems. Family law made up 26.7 per cent of issues identified, while landlord-tenant matters made up 13.6 per cent, civil matters made up 11.2 per cent, wills and powers of attorney made up 10.8 per cent, criminal charges made up 8.8 per cent and employment matters made up 7.8 per cent. Other issues brought up include disability support, education, assisted dying, police action and identity theft.

The report noted that, although consumer and debt issues often appear as the most frequently occurring problems in surveys, these types of issues almost never came up in the van. The report speculates that people may not consider these problems as legal issues. The report adds that “people may erroneously feel that there isn’t anything that can be done about certain kinds of problems.”

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