By Colleen Sym
People arrive at the door of Michael’s church seeking help, often by happenstance or sometimes by design. The Reverend Canon Michael Patterson is the rector at the Anglican Church of the Incarnation in Oakville.
For many, it’s a last resort. These people are desperate and have come looking for charity; justice is far from their minds. At Michael’s church, people are met with compassion in a place where they’ll be heard without judgement.
As they tell their story, defences start to come down and they grow more forthcoming. A relationship of trust is built. Discussion follows about immediate proactive help that can be provided by the parish to alleviate crisis.
It’s often at this moment that Michael shifts the direction of the conversation to explore the underlying systemic issues embedded in someone’s experience. One of the tools he uses is the Legal Health Check-Up. Available in paper or electronic form, the tool gives trusted intermediaries like Michael a list of questions to ask the client in the areas of income, housing, employment, education and health to identity the common legal problems of people living in poverty.
Piloting the Legal Health Check-Up through community partners
The church is one of the seven community partners who participated in the Halton pilot of the Legal Health Check-Up project. Other partners are:
- the Halton Hills Family Health Team
- the Halton Multicultural Council
- the Society of St. Vincent De Paul
- Mary Mother of God Parish Oakville, and
- Voices for Change Halton.
Halton Community Legal Services and these partners piloted the Legal Health Check-Up as a form of outreach. An active offer of services by the legal clinic is made through trusted intermediaries who are part of the existing contact networks accessed by people in need of legal services. Through the Legal Health Check-Up and the relationship that has developed with legal clinic staff, Michael can call someone who knows where to go for help—he can access warm referrals and the clinic’s networks of contacts.
More than just a referral
The evaluation report of the project, prepared by Dr. Ab Currie, was released at the Southwest Legal Clinics’ Conference in late April.
As part of the evaluation process, Michael reported that he likes the project because it has structure. The project is more than just giving people a phone number and telling them to call to get legal advice.
An opportunity for change
While for some potential clients, “legal” is a red flag, Michael’s reassurance helps people to overcome their suspicions. “It makes an enormous difference to be able to tell people who already know and trust me that this is a project I’ve been directly involved in, and that I’m intricately connected through the network of people who will be offering their help,” says Michael.
“To put people at ease, I try to remind them that everything is confidential, that they can always change their minds, and that this is a different kind of experience than they may have had in the past with agencies. Though it may still feel like a risk for the client, I ask them to consider that it could be an opportunity for change.”
Requests for clinic referrals
During the pilot, 300 people completed the Legal Health Check-Up. For those who were connected to the tool by a community partner, between 65 per cent and 90 per cent of the completed forms resulted in a request for a referral to the legal clinic for assistance.
As a result, client intake at the clinic during this period increased by about one-third.
When asked if he had learned anything because of his involvement in the project, Michael responded, “There’s a need for a coalition of groups and agencies who work systemically to get people out of their situations, and there is a need for a unified direction to work together. It’s the role of the legal clinic to lead that process.”
Looking ahead to future pilot projects
Developing a holistic and integrated legal service delivery model with community partner support is how we’re beginning to lead this process. In year two of the project, the legal clinics in Brant Haldimond Norfolk, Guelph and Wellington County, and Hamilton will undertake pilots in their communities. In Halton, the project will be expanded and consolidated.
To learn more, go to www.legalhealthcheckup.ca.
Extending the Reach of Legal Aid: Report on the Pilot Phase of the Legal Health Check-Up Project: https://www.legalhealthcheckup.ca/pdf/legal-health-check-up-pilot-evaluation.pdf
Colleen Sym is the Executive Director/Lawyer at Halton Community Legal Services, a community legal clinic funded by Legal Aid Ontario. The legal clinic provides poverty law services to the low income community in Halton. Areas of law include tenants rights, employment law, human rights, entitlement to social benefits and pensions.