Extending the reach of legal aid – The Halton Legal Health Check-Up project

By Ab Currie, PhD

In an effort to overcome the realties of unmet legal needs in South Western Ontario, the Halton Community Legal Services (HCLS) has created the Legal Health Check-Up project. Primarily funded by Legal Aid Ontario’s Fund to Strengthen Capacity of Community and Legal Clinics, this initiative maintains that the key to effective resolution of legal problems lies in early and holistic intervention.

The Legal Health Check-Up project combines two main components. The first is a series of partnerships between intermediaries and the clinic which are facilitated by HCLS standing within Ontario’s community clinic system. The second element is a tool to assist the intermediaries in carrying out two “gateway” roles of problem spotting and making legal referrals. This component is crucial given that people often do not recognize the legal aspects of the problems they face in their day-to-day lives. They typically do not know where to go for help and do not think anything can be done. Consequently, many people will not seek help until the situation is desperate.

Over the past several months HCLS has developed and tested a responsively designed, online Legal Health Check-Up form. This form asks people about the everyday legal problems they may be facing in five areas: income, housing, education, employment and supports (family, social and health). Each section of the form concludes with an open-ended question that allows people to provide additional details about their situation. The questions are written in plain language, refer to the normal activities of everyday life and make no explicit reference to legal matters or the need for legal help.

A few of the questions on the Legal Health Check-Up form.

A few of the questions on the Legal Health Check-Up form.

Extending reach through multi-disciplinary partnerships

In order to pilot the use of the tool, the clinic has formed multi-disciplinary partnerships with seven intermediary organizations in the area. These include:

  • Employment Halton
  • Halton Hills Family Health Team
  • Halton Multicultural Council
  • Links2Care
  • Anglican Church of the Incarnation Oakville
  • Voices for Change Halton
  • Society of St. Vincent De Paul, Mary Mother of God Parish, Oakville.

The intermediaries extend the reach of the legal clinic by providing a direct connection to various groups that are often difficult to reach – primarily the socially disadvantaged.

Intermediaries can adjust the way they approach individuals based on the nature of their relationship and the type of problems that are identified. The introduction of the Legal Health Check-Up from a familiar intermediary can make all the difference in uptake. Intermediaries provide encouragement and can assist with completing and submitting the forms on paper or online. Follow-up is proactive – people are able to request a contact from an intake worker at the clinic, they can be notified of upcoming group information sessions and they can request public legal education materials that will be sent by mail. Increasing the capacity of community-based intermediaries to engage in collective action on behalf of the people who are members of their constituencies, and who are also clients of the legal clinic is an important part of the project.

This entails training and mentoring by the Halton clinic to increase the legal and organizational capability of the intermediaries who are inclined to engage in collective action. It also entails increasing the legal capability of individuals to pursue social justice objectives through changes in legislation and policy.

The intake process is designed to identify social or health problems related to client’s legal problems. A recent pre-test deemed the Legal Health Check-Up form to be very good at identifying legal problems, in particular employment and family issues. Of the 22 participants there were 16 requests for a return call from an intake worker. The following results were identified from those intake cases. Please note that appropriate legal action and referrals were undertaken by the clinic for the legal and related problems identified in the pre-test.

  • 8 requests for information about group sessions
  • At least one problem per participant that closely matched the everyday problems on the Legal Health Check-Up form
  • 7 participants were deemed to have legal problems considered in the early stages of development
  • 1 problem (pertaining to employment) was assessed as an emerging crisis
  • 2 physical health problems
  • 4 problems of severe anxiety
  • 1 problem involving suicidal ideation

When arrangements with the intermediaries have been finalized and training to administer the Legal Health Check-Up forms has been completed the project will run for a three-month test period. Following an assessment of this phase, changes indicated by the data will be implemented and the project will continue for approximately two years. The Canadian Forum on Civil Justice is providing research support to the project. Research questions focus on how well the intermediary – legal clinic partnership works, the effectiveness of the Legal Health Check-Up form as a tool for identifying increased numbers of legal problems compared with the pre-Check-Up operation of the clinic, the effectiveness of the process for identifying problems early after they first emerge in people’s lives, and how well the Legal Health Check-Up process supports effective and early intervention by the clinic.

This project is an experiment for expanding access to justice by extending the reach of legal aid through strategic partnerships with community based intermediary groups. This approach represents a change in legal aid service delivery from primarily reacting to expressed demand for service to proactively meeting legal needs. The Legal Health Check-Up marks an important step towards helping people recognize the legal nature of their problems while guiding them towards productive, holistic interventions and community support.

Click here to take the Legal Health Check-Up and for more information contact Colleen Sym, Executive Director of the Halton Community Legal Clinic at SymC@lao.on.ca.

Ab Currie holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Toronto. He has been conducting policy research on legal aid and other access to justice issues for more than 25 years and has authored about 50 reports, articles and book chapters on access to justice topics. He carried out extensive research on unmet needs for legal aid. He has also conducted extensive research on the incidence and patterns of justiciable problems and on unmet need for access to justice services in civil matters.

This piece originally appeared on the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice’s Access to Justice blog on Aug. 27, 2014.