Creating a holistic approach to client service – one clinic’s story

By Ian Aitken

The Community Legal Clinic—Brant, Haldimand, Norfolk, has been using the Legal Health Check-Up (LHC) to help clients with unrecognized legal problems since participating in the tool’s pilot project.

This tool is a survey that asks simple questions about many of the legal problems that we help low income people in our community solve every day. It asks participants, for instance, about their income, housing, employment, education, health, and family and community supports.

Their answers may reveal unrecognized legal problems that can be resolved before they cause a crisis like eviction or illness.

By helping us identify and support clients in all of their legal issues, the LHC has changed the way that we reach and interact with clients and moved us toward a more holistic and trusting model of legal service.

One family’s housing dilemma

Our support for John Doe (not his real name), one of the first LHC clients to come to our clinic, showcases the potential benefits of the check-up.

John contacted us with some urgency a year ago, prior to the LHC pilot, when his family was facing eviction from their apartment.

Our clinic’s tenant duty counsel provided John with legal advice at the Landlord and Tenant Board, but John and his family were ultimately evicted because of rent arrears.

John contacted us six months later, when he was living in a motel with his family. He had run out of money and was being forced to leave the motel. We referred him to the Salvation Army for emergency housing assistance and to help him find a new place to live.

The Salvation Army did help him find a new apartment, but it was substandard and lacked adequate heat. He called the Salvation Army again for help. This time, they referred him to the LHC, which he completed online.

He used the LHC to take the time to think about all the things that were going on and access a tool that could identify all of his legal issues, from urgent matters that had not turned into crises to less pressing concerns.

That gave us the opportunity to help him determine the root cause of all his legal issues and consider a holistic range of supports.

Ultimately, the tool helped us help John and his family improve their living conditions immediately, and move out of abject poverty in fairly short order.

Discovering the whole story

John had been employed and able to provide for his family until he suffered a work injury and the subsequent reduction of his Workplace Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB) benefits. Here is what happened once we were armed with the information he provided us:

  • We immediately intervened with the Landlord and Tenant Board and assisted him in obtaining heat and a rent abatement.
  • We provided him with summary advice about his WSIB claim and advised him on the options available to him.
  • We helped him apply for support from Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and gave him direction about his CPP Disability applications—benefits he should have applied for right after his WSIB benefits were reduced and will provide him with enough money to live in a decent place
  • We will help him apply for the ODSP’s drug and dental card for his kids.

John and his family remain connected to the clinic and continue to receive substantive legal help.

Connecting clients to community resources

The real magic of the LHC is that it connects more people with our service as well as to other resources in the community.

Two years ago, when John learned that his WSIB benefits were going to be reduced, it didn’t occur to him—or to his family or friends—that he should talk to a lawyer. And despite the fact that we had helped him in the past, he did not know about the work that we do and our knowledge of the system.

If the LHC had existed and John had completed it at that time, alarm bells would have gone off. We would likely have told him that he was at risk of losing his housing and not having the resources to care of his family—and that he could mitigate that risk by appealing the reduction of his WSIB benefits.

Those same alarm bells rang when he did complete this tool.

Trusted intermediaries are essential

John was able to connect with the many legal services we can provide by finding the LHC through the Salvation Army—one of our many community intermediaries.

The connection with a trusted intermediary, particularly for people who may be wary or distrustful of the legal system, is integral to the success of the LHC.

In this case, the client reached out to the Salvation Army because he trusted them and they were not a “legal” service.   They assured him that our clinic could assist him despite his fears about the legal system.

Ask us for more effective and holistic service

Our clinic has seen many such examples of how the LHC can help us provide more effective and holistic service.

If you live in Brant, Haldimand or Norfolk counties and want to check your legal health, please contact us at (519) 752- 8669 extension 23. You can also take the check-up online at www.legalhealthcheckup.ca.

Ian Aitken is Co-Director of the Community Legal Clinic — Brant, Haldimand, Norfolk.