Community justice help

Pushing the boundary of legal information: what do clients really need?

As a community worker, what is your comfort level in helping clients who come to you with a problem that has a legal element?

Last week, David Wiseman, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa law school, joined us and a dozen community workers on the CLEO Connect Learning Exchange conference call to talk about his latest research. He and Julie Mathews of CLEO have spent the past several months studying when, how, and why community workers help people with legal problems in Ontario communities and in other jurisdictions.

Through their research, David and Julie learned that many community workers are concerned about crossing the boundary into legal advice or other services offered by licensed professionals when they help clients with legal problems. The rules that regulate legal services in Ontario are unclear. This lack of clarity has created a sense of risk that has had a chilling effect on many community workers in, for example, helping clients fill in legal forms.

But as recent research commissioned by the Law Foundation of Ontario shows, community workers are much needed supports for vulnerable people with legal problems. Clients trust them, and they in turn show “inspiring commitment” in helping their clients. They also often have a cultural or linguistic connection with the communities they serve, deepening trust.

And, where legal aid assistance is not available for the type of problem a client has, a community worker may be their only realistic source of getting the help they need to maintain housing or benefits, or to challenge injustices.

David and Julie propose that “community justice help” – allowing community workers to perform some tasks more traditionally associated with lawyering - be supported and assisted, rather than prohibited or discouraged. In their view, this “equip not restrict” approach is appropriate in settings where three key elements exist:

  1. Community service workers and leaders in not-for-profit organizations and government have the knowledge, skills, and experience to help people deal with legal dimensions of their problem.
  2. Service is provided within an ethical infrastructure (for example, confidentiality and privacy concerns are addressed).
  3. The service fills a gap and complements existing available free legal services.

David and Julie are now looking at ways to ensure that community justice help remains of high quality, without creating yet another layer of regulation. They want to talk to community workers. Read their short consultation guide for more information and for the questions they are raising. You can also contact David or Julie if you want to share your views.

How do you decide how far you are willing to go as a community worker in helping people with legal problems? Share your thoughts with us.

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