Building bridges through community partnerships

Pictured above from left to right: Cheri Herdman, supervisor, DPNCHC Early Years and Children’s Services, Tamara Largie, supervisor, DPNCHC Early Years Health Promotion and Initiatives, Amy Slotek, LAO program coordinator, and Alex de Melo, LAO staff family lawyer.

By Amy Slotek

The Legal Aid Ontario professionals who work out of the Davenport-Perth Neighbourhood and Community Health Centre (DPNCHC) in Toronto’s west end help address the access to justice gap in this community. This is why and how they do it.

Joseph’s story

Joseph1 is a 50-year-old man who suffers from severe diabetes and is on disability assistance. When his income was garnished by Ontario’s Family Responsibility Office for child support arrears, he had to choose between eating, having a roof over his head and paying for his insulin.

Joseph did not know that a resolvable legal issue was exacerbating his medical condition: Ontarians can apply to have a child support order changed if their disability precludes them from working.

By the time his social worker – Legal Aid Ontario’s on-site health care partner at Davenport-Perth Neighbourhood and Community Health Centre – referred Joseph to our office, his condition was deteriorating. He had lost vision in his right eye, was losing vision in his left, and could no longer work.

Thankfully, members of our team intervened and advocated to have Joseph’s arrears rescinded and child support order terminated. As a result, Joseph has a more stable income, and can better manage his condition.

The DPNCHC-LAO partnership

DPNCHC is a multi-service agency that has been in operation for three decades in the diverse and vibrant west end of Toronto. Over half of the people who live in this community are immigrants to Canada. Many struggle with poverty, systemic barriers and an inability to access the services they need to make positive changes in their lives.

DPNCHC provides primary health care to residents as well as health promotion programs such as:

  • mental health and addictions counselling
  • adult drop-in and community dining programs
  • settlement services
  • crisis intervention
  • literacy programs
  • a youth health clinic;
  • early years, youth and seniors programs.

I joined LAO to develop the integrated legal services program at DPNCHC in March 2014. Our team:

  • provides immigration and family law services on site
  • coordinates referrals to onsite programs and legal aid funded programs, including community and speciality clinics, across the GTA
  • trains DPNCHC staff, like Joseph’s social worker, to identify legal needs and refer those in need to our team as early as possible.

Reaching those at the margins

Non-legal advisors are routinely the point of contact for people with legal problems. A 2012 Australian survey, for example, revealed that 69 per cent of individuals are more likely to seek help from non-legal than legal supports and that the more marginalised the individual, the less likely he or she is to seek professional legal help. The sad reality is that those who need legal support the most are often the least likely to seek it out.

The reasons for this are complex. Individuals who live precariously, experience homelessness or survive abuse do not always know if they have a legal issue, who they can trust or what supports are available to them. As lawyers, we are sometimes regarded with suspicion, representing a justice system which is not always just.

The role that non-legal professionals, or trusted intermediaries, can play in facilitating access between legal aid services and people who need our help has received international attention. To do this important work, intermediaries require support, access to information and the skills to spot legal issues, some of which are hidden and evolving.

LAO partnerships like the one at DPNCHC seek to strengthen the capacity of frontline workers to meet this challenge.

From crisis management to crisis prevention

Our potential clients are often confused about what a lawyer does and surprised that we have an office in a community agency. Many think the role of real-life lawyers is restricted to the role of fictional lawyers on television – to vindicate the violated rights of a client in court. Lawyers do play this very critical role, but we are also problem solvers, advice givers and negotiators.

Helping clients plan their legal affairs early on before they escalate into crisis can sometimes make a world of difference. When a woman is planning to flee from violence in her home and has the benefit of turning to a lawyer for advice, she can better plan her escape. When parents with precarious immigration status have access to confidential legal support, they are able to make better informed decisions for themselves and their children.

Such “preventative lawyering” requires the public to begin seeing lawyers as individuals who they can trust and with whom they can engage early on. It also requires lawyers to be accessible in community spaces to build trust and facilitate strong relationships with community service providers to reach those in need as early as possible.

There are good precedents for this south of the border. Legal Aid societies in the United States have been engaging in community partnerships with health care providers since the early 1990s. When fueled with resources, coordination and commitment to succeed, they have yielded promising results and also illustrate that:

Stopping the revolving door

Service delivery models have traditionally been set up as though peoples’ legal and non-legal needs can be easily separated. They cannot.

Requiring people to travel to multiple sites to get their housing, health care, and legal needs met, for instance, tends to shuffle them between service providers with little coordination. It also makes them feel as though they are constantly moving through a “revolving door.”

This can cause frustration and anxiety, and create additional barriers for low-income clients who may not have the resources to travel.

Furthermore, legal issues often act as triggers. A family breakdown, for example, can lead to income loss, debt, homelessness, anxiety and stress. It is those issues that are often at the forefront of a client’s experience. Without adequate community supports for clients in need, legal professionals often step in to assist with these non-legal issues, resulting in lawyers assuming professional roles that we were not trained to fulfill.

Strong LAO community partnerships are a good alternative, helping to provide valuable non-legal services to legal aid clients with complex needs.

When I asked my colleague and family law staff lawyer, Ana Rico, about her experience providing legal services in a community agency setting, she explained:

I find that my job is a lot easier to do when there are community partners who can support clients to manage their survival needs. Once a client has been able to manage those, they are then more able to focus on exercising their legal rights.

Lawyers are not trained to work with survivors of trauma so having community support workers onsite to help survivors tell their stories, which are often key elements of the legal case they must present to the justice system, is also extremely valuable.

How our access to justice strategy worked for Joseph

As for Joseph, prior to the onset of blindness and the loss of his employment, he worked for many years supporting homeless people with addictions and mental health issues. He is proud of the work that he did and wishes he could continue.

He never thought that he would find himself in his current position or that he would need legal aid. But he stresses that he was happy to get legal support at a community agency close to his home, where he receives other support services.

As he puts it, “I was learning how to manage my blindness and I had to turn to the social worker at DPNCHC to help me manage simple tasks. I could not even make a phone call because I could not see the numbers on the phone.

“I would never have been able to travel downtown or to the court house to get legal assistance because of the challenges I now face with my mobility and vision.

Thankfully, I was able to walk down the hall to get legal help when I needed it most.”

Get more information about the LAO-DPNCHC partnership.

Get more information about the Davenport-Perth Neighbourhood and Community Health Centre


Amy Slotek, a lawyer with experience in anti-discrimination, international and refugee law, coordinates the Legal Aid Ontario services program at the Davenport-Perth Neighbourhood and Community Health Care Centre and was co-founder of the first refugee legal aid program in Turkey.

1 Name and details have been changed to protect this client’s identity.