Legal Health Check-Up draws international attention at OECD expert roundtable

By Dr. Ab Currie Ph.D.

The Halton Legal Health Check-Up demonstrates what communities can do to address the gap between legal aid resources and the extent and depth of legal need.

I was pleased to have had the opportunity to provide my support when The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) began examining the potential of legal aid to reduce poverty and, more broadly, its impact on economic development.

OECD roundtable on access to justice

Initially, I helped develop background documents for an October 7, 2015 OECD roundtable discussing research literature related to the cost of justice and the costs of access to justice denied.

I told the organizers about the Halton Legal Health Check-Up project community development approach to legal aid and other aspects of access to justice on poverty reduction, developed by Colleen Sym at Halton Community Legal Services.

Our project drew much interest from the OECD, including multiple citations in the background material. As a result, I was invited to make a presentation on the Halton Legal Health Check-Up at one of its December 1, 2015 roundtable sessions.

How to close the gap between resources and need

In my presentation, I discussed the question of how to respond to legal need given the gap between the resources of legal aid under the best of circumstances, and the extent and depth of legal need.

Somehow, legal aid has to figure out a way to extend and maximize its reach and impact. Even a complete legal victory, such as securing 100 per cent of a client’s Ontario Disability Support Payment entitlement, may have a limited impact relative to the client’s needs. Also, legal problems often occur in interconnected clusters of legal and non-legal issues, challenging the capacity of a single agency to deal with the complexity.

Utilizing community resources to improve lives

The Legal Health Check-Up tool harnesses the resources of the community by partnering with intermediaries to deal with multiple interrelated problem clusters that typically occur in the lives of the most disadvantaged people. A large dent in alleviating or solving poverty probably cannot be made by conventional legal aid services. However, this tool and approach may offer a way in which legal aid can improve the lives of the poor.

For legal aid to extend and maximize its value, a strategy needs to be developed that, like the Legal Health Check-Up, is a community development approach to legal aid in which legal aid develops collaborative partnerships with organizations. The combined efforts and resources of a network of access to justice services that strengthens the community is probably the only way to do this.

The OECD is focussed on building a business case—an investment model approach to providing legal aid. But a business case probably cannot be built based on conventional legal aid. The problem is trying to build a case for what is, in effect, a moving target.

Reinventing legal aid

What we are doing now is reinventing and reimagining what legal aid is and how it should be reorganized to have an impact on the lives of people living in poverty.

There is a large body of empirical evidence demonstrating that legal assistance produces beneficial outcomes for the poor. However, there is a big difference between getting a good legal outcome and having an impact on poverty.

Current thinking about access to justice is that we may have to change the way legal services are delivered in order to have beneficial effects on the lives of disadvantaged people. This means that building a business case for legal aid is not a straightforward process.

As always, proponents of access to justice will have to build the political case as well as the business case. But those who champion the expansion of access to justice will be encouraged that the OECD has entered the discourse on access to justice and may eventually support access to justice programs. I told OECD representatives they will probably have to support the development of new forms of legal aid to really have an impact on poverty. The Legal Health Check-Up is just one small illustration of this. They need to support legal aid—not in its conventional forms, but by supporting innovation.

Roots of the legal aid movement

A community-focused approach to legal aid was one of the foundations of the early legal aid movement in the 1960s. So, at its broadest level, this is far from a novel idea. The Legal Health Check-Up’s innovation is to take legal aid from consulting with community organizations in order to develop a greater understanding of legal need and the pathways to find legal services, to actually partnering with those organizations to resolve problems jointly.

The underlying rationale and concept for the Check-Up and intermediary clinic partnerships is not new. But this approach is highly innovative and has attracted a lot of interest. Representatives from other countries at the roundtable requested copies of the Legal Health Check-Up presentation.

Access to justice from the individual’s view

It is pleasing that the OECD is embracing the individual-centred narrative of access to justice by looking at the problems and services from the point of view of the people experiencing them rather than from the justice system’s point of view. If legal aid or some form of legal assistance can succeed in securing identity documents or land titles for large segments of the underclass, that could have an enormous economic impact.

When high-level international organizations like the United Nations and the OECD identify with legal aid, they cannot help but push the cause forward.

Dr. Ab Currie is a senior research fellow at the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice and research consultant for the Legal Health Check-Up project. Dr. Currie has conducted policy research on legal aid for over 25 years, and authored numerous reports, articles and book chapters on access to justice topics.