Five steps to help clients

Are you unsure about how to help clients who come to you with legal problems? Here are some steps you can take to detect legal problems in your clients' lives, learn more about the law, and help your clients get the support they need.

And bookmark our tip sheet and referral information package for future reference.

Many people with legal problems don’t realize that their problem has a legal aspect, or a possible legal solution. For example, someone who’s had their social assistance cut off might see this as simply “bad luck” or as a necessary evil of dealing with a government agency. But they might not understand that there is a legal process they can follow to try to challenge this.

Even if you help people with their legal problems fairly often, it can sometimes be hard to tell if a problem is a legal one. If you’re not certain whether the problem your client is describing to you is a legal problem, there are three strategies you can use to try to figure this out.

Listen for life events. Life events, such as getting separated, losing a job, or owing a lot of money, sometimes trigger legal problems.

Listen for legal language. What your clients asks or tells you may signal that they have a legal problem.

Look for legal documents or ask if they received any. This kind of paperwork may tell you that the problem has a legal aspect.

Download our tip sheet “Detecting legal problems

Many community workers try to get training to learn more about the law so that they can give better legal information to their clients. If you want training, you can check the following sources to see if there is training available that meets your needs:

  • Contact the umbrella organization for your sector (for example, OCASI for settlement workers; the Housing Help Association of Ontario for housing workers)
  • Contact your local community legal clinic to see whether they provide training for community workers
Book our workshop “Helping people with their legal problems
View our webinar “Tools for helping people find good legal information

There’s a lot of legal information available online – so much that it can be hard to tell what’s reliable, or what applies to your province.

Here are some questions to ask that can tell you whether the legal information you find is reliable and relevant to your client’s situation.

Does the information apply in Ontario? Legal information applies to specific locations, also known as jurisdictions, and it may be wrong if applied elsewhere. Online searches often return results from other regions, so it’s important to know whether the information you find applies to Ontario.

Is the information from a trustworthy source? Reliable legal information providers tell you how to contact them, usually by giving an email address and a phone number. And they will have had the information or reviewed by a qualified legal expert. If you’re not sure if a lawyer was involved in preparing information, check the “About” page or contact the organization to find out.

Is the information complete and unbiased? Most organizations that present complete, unbiased information, such as government, legal aid, community legal clinics, and non-profits don’t have paid ads on their websites. And in most cases, you should be able to find reliable legal information without having to pay to view it.

Is the information up-to-date? Look for a date when the information was produced or last reviewed by someone with legal expertise.

Download our resource “Sources for online legal information

Community workers who are not legally trained can only give legal information. They can’t give legal advice.

Legal information is general information that can help people understand their legal rights, how legal processes work, and how to get more help. A community worker who is not legally trained can give legal information.

Legal advice involves one person giving their opinion to another person about how that person should deal with a specific legal problem. Only licensed legal professionals can provide legal advice.

This means that, as a community worker, you can’t tell people who have a legal problem what they should do or what they should say. You can feel comfortable:

  • Giving someone reliable legal information
  • Telling them that a specific law or set of rules may apply to their situation

If they show you a legal letter or document and ask for help understanding it, you can help them by reading the letter to them, translating it to their language, or explaining what legal terms mean in plain language. But you shouldn’t give them your interpretation or views about what the document means or what they should do.

And some people may ask you to help them complete a legal form. As a community worker, you can help people fill out forms as long as they tell you what they want to say, and you write it down. But you shouldn’t fill out the form using your own words or telling them what to say.

But some people will want more specific help or information. If you do give those people legal information, make sure to stress that you are not giving them advice, and that you can’t tell them what to do or say.

Download our tip sheet “Giving legal information
Book our workshop “Helping people with their legal problems"

People dealing with a legal problem often need help from a legal professional: a lawyer, paralegal, or trained legal worker supervised by a lawyer.

When helping someone, it can be challenging to identify the type of legal service that deals with the area of law the client needs help with, and that offers free or low-cost services.

Before referring someone to a legal clinic or law office, if you have time, try to call them or check their website to make sure they can actually help.

Here are some other things to consider when making referrals:

Does the legal clinic or law office:

  • serve the geographical area where the person lives or works?
  • give help for the type of legal problem the person is dealing with?
  • require the person to meet financial eligibility criteria?
  • offer accessible services if your client has physical accommodation needs?
  • have someone who speaks your client’s language?
Download our tip sheet “Making referrals for legal services
Download our referral list “Legal services in Ontario