Community-Based Access to Justice: Impact and Opportunity

Originally published on Slaw, Canada's online legal magazine; written by CLEO's Julie Mathews.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had wide-ranging and profound impacts on our society. The crisis has led to a surge in legal problems related to tenant rights, employment issues, domestic violence and other areas. Most would agree that, pandemic or not, access to justice is still a goal that is far beyond our grasp. Making real headway is complicated and no easy solutions exist, but in this moment there is opportunity for meaningful change. Can we seize it?

This week CLEO released a new report, Community Justice Help: Advancing Community-Based Access to Justice. It is the product of a fellowship that I received from the Law Foundation of Ontario and is co-authored with David Wiseman, a professor at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law. Over the last couple of years, David and I had the opportunity to speak with and learn from many thoughtful people who have engaged, in a myriad of ways, in the intersecting world of the law and community. Early findings from our research were shared here last fall.

In our report, we posit that progress on access to justice requires approaches that are broader than improving access to licensed legal service providers. This is not to suggest that access to licensed lawyers or paralegals is unimportant; on the contrary, we believe strongly that access to publicly-funded services provided by Ontario’s community legal clinics in the area of poverty law, and in family and criminal law through other legal aid programs, is vital and, if anything, should be expanded.

Our goal is to highlight the existence of another important source of assistance: frontline workers at community-based not-for-profits who are trained to assist their clients in the organization’s area of specialty. These workers understand the social context of their clients’ lives and the interwoven nature of their problems – problems that are life affecting and can include a law-related element. They give holistic help, including help with a law-related aspect, in response to clients’ multi-faceted problems, and often connect them with other experts in the community, including licensed legal services providers. Our paper calls this type of assistance “community justice help” and we offer a framework for recognizing when it is of a high and impactful standard.

We also discuss the current regulatory regime and policies that apply to the provision of legal services in Ontario, and share our analysis that community justice help provided by workers at not-for-profit organizations aligns with existing policies. We discuss the importance of quality assurance – supported by rigorous evaluation – to promote good quality services, and emphasize the importance of building on the quality assurance standards and practices that already exist in Ontario not-for-profit organizations.

We acknowledge the concern – often put forward by licensed legal service providers – that some community workers might provide help that exceeds their knowledge and skills, putting the public at risk of harmful consequences. This is, of course, a valid concern, but has to be considered in light of the reality that many people in Ontario are unable to access a licensed legal service provider, which puts the public at risk of injustice. Overall, our research and consultations did not reveal evidence to support a generalized concern that community workers in Ontario provide services that go beyond their specific knowledge and skills.

In a nutshell, we believe that access to justice and access to the formal legal system are not the same thing, and that people should be able to access both. Depending on the circumstances, access to justice may be available without accessing the formal legal system of licensed legal professionals and courts and tribunals. Both increasing access to the formal legal system and supporting community justice help are essential to improving access to justice, particularly, as the report discusses, for people who experience social disadvantages. In our view, this is not an either/ or proposition, but is one that we – the legal profession and frontline professionals providing community justice help – can move forward together.