Community justice help

Community justice help: holistic approaches to clients’ needs

Today, Julie Mathews, CLEO's Executive Director, joins us to share some thoughts about getting vulnerable people in Ontario the help they need through agencies in their community.

Eye-opening. Stimulating. These are words that are not often associated with conferences at which the law is featured.

But the buzz in the room after a recent panel discussion on “community justice help” – held in Toronto as part of Access to Justice Week 2019 – makes me think that audience members would identify with those descriptors.

The panel, moderated by Alex Derisier of Connecting Ottawa, featured Carol Barkwell of Luke’s Place, Geordie Dent of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations, Francisco Rico Martinez of the FCJ Refugee House, and Jacquie Thompson of Life*Spin.

The panelists engaged in a lively discussion that highlighted the nature of the holistic and practical help that they give to people who visit their offices with life-affecting problems, including problems that have something to do with the law.
What was the cause of the buzz in the normally sedate conference space? It’s hard to know for sure, but I was struck by some of the following observations from the panelists. (These are not direct quotes – but rather my recollection of what they said.)

  • It’s important that “no one leaves the office with their hands empty”: people must be connected with the best help available to them.
  • Many people in vulnerable situations can’t avoid engaging in the legal system: their organizations provide a critical “bridging” role, helping their clients organize their questions and concerns and connecting them with lawyers for help with more formal processes.
  • Their organizations have a “symbiotic relationship” with legal clinics in their regions: they do what they can do, and leave what they can’t do for lawyers.
  • A stark dividing line between legal information and legal advice does not reflect reality: is it “legal advice”, for example, to tell someone that they should leave their house because they’re at risk?
  • The help given often can’t be easily categorized as legal: clients bring interwoven concerns relating to their safety, housing situation, income security, and ability to remain in Canada.
  • “Holistic help” is a hallmark of their help – for example, help with intersecting housing, gender, and health issues: holistic help means filling in gaps, not duplicating efforts.
  • Systemic work is a necessary corollary to the help they give their clients – “if one person has a particular problem, it is likely that 100 will have a similar one”: community organizations don’t just follow the systems, they work to change the systems.

The session left me with a deeper understanding of the role played by these front-line community organizations; admiration for their dedication to putting their clients’ needs above everything else; and a recognition of the difficulty in trying to extricate “legal problems” from the intersecting problems faced by people.

Perhaps the buzz in the room flowed from the audience’s realization that community workers help turn “access to justice” from a lofty goal to an on-the-ground reality for many people in Ontario. I was left hoping that we could find a way to share the good news: this type of “community justice help” should be seen as integral to the justice system.

Want more information about community justice help? Visit our "Learn about community legal help" page to review our research to date or to link to the panel discussion on video.