Megan Pottage

An insider’s perspective on the community legal clinic system challenges

By Megan Pottage

In October 2013, I joined Legal Aid Ontario after 12 years of working in the clinic system, most recently as a community legal worker and licensed paralegal in a community legal clinic. My hands-on job familiarized me—intimately—with the pressures faced by the clinic system.

Poverty rarely comes alone

Ontario’s legal aid clinics provide vital legal services to some of the most vulnerable in our society—people who live in poverty. I came face to face, every day, with the reality that poverty rarely comes alone.

Its frequent companions are addiction, mental health, physical disability, issues in family or criminal court, irregular employment and unstable housing—all in need of an immediate solution.

What to do?

The answer is not straightforward. Community legal clinics constantly need to meet the challenge of trying to find a balance between meeting the demand for immediate client services, and finding the time to effect meaningful change to the system so that fewer people run up against the same problems.

The stakes are high and immediate attention is needed

My clients taught me that when you’re poor, life is a maze of sharp corners and dead ends, with not enough resources. The stakes are always high and the need to meet immediate needs is imperative.

Workers at legal clinics know that a mistake on an Ontario Works reporting form might mean suspended benefits and no money for rent or the kids’ lunches. No money for rent might mean that same person gets evicted. Everything gets disrupted when anyone moves, but someone in poverty forced to move on short notice without any plan or resources will run into many other problems.

Law reform efforts, community organizing, and public legal education

In addition to supporting individuals who come through the door, clinics have a legislated duty to address their problems in a more systemic way, through law reform efforts, community organizing, and public legal education.

Improvements to case law

What this means is that if a clinic identifies a systemic issue, it might attempt to improve case law by appealing a decision to a higher court.

It was a community legal clinic appeal, for instance, that resulted in the Supreme Court of Canada decision on the Tranchemontagne case. As a result of this case, people who suffer from disabilities as a result of an addiction (such as a severe dependence on alcohol) can no longer be discriminated against because of their type of disability, and are entitled to long-term disability benefits under the Ontario Disability Support Program Act. The Court decided that denying such benefits violates Ontario’s Human Rights Code.

Community organizing

Clinics also organize their communities to help raise awareness of issues.

The Ontario Project for Inter-Clinic Community Organizing, for instance, helps coordinate provincial campaigns that work towards a better future for people living in poverty. Among its initiatives: the ODSP Action Coalition group and the One Percent Solution campaign.

Legal education

In addition, community legal clinics are deeply engaged in helping people learn about their legal rights and resources through speaking engagements and written materials.

All of these efforts can have a big payoff in the long run, but they require massive resources and time —both in short supply. Maintaining these two modes of service delivery–direct and systemic–will always be a balancing act and a constant struggle.

A whole new perspective

These days, in my current job as LAO’s clinic and program advisor for the GTA region, I have a whole new perspective on the system and the delivery of services within it.  I am watching with awe as many of the community legal clinics in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) work on what they call the GTA Transformation Project. The idea is to try and figure out how to deliver, from the ground up, the highest quality poverty law service to the most people in need.

I try and bring my understanding of the challenges they face to the table so I can support their efforts on a daily basis. I certainly hope it makes a difference!

Megan Pottage is Legal Aid Ontario’s Clinic and Programs Advisor for the GTA region

Have any questions about Community Legal Clinics or the GTA Transformation Project? Please comment below.