Tracking legal need in very small areas with the Legal Health Check-Up

By Dr. Ab Currie Ph.D.

The legal health check-up (LHC) is a uniquely valuable tool for documenting unmet legal need at a very fine-grained local level. The LHC questionnaire is administered by community groups and service agencies to people seeking their services. Individuals who request service from the legal clinic are referred to the clinic. The LHC form becomes the basis for a dialogue between the clinic staff and the individual, laying the groundwork for a more holistic and integrated service that would otherwise not have occurred with an intake process focussing on only one presenting problem. The larger number of LHC forms, whether or not service is requested, can also be used to construct a data base representing all the individuals who complete the forms reporting the problems they are currently experiencing.

The LHC used for data collection is not a random and representative survey. Coverage depends on factors such as the number of groups in the community having LHC partnership arrangements with the legal clinic. The reliability of the data depends on the manner in which each agency has people complete the forms.

However, the form records the everyday legal problems occurring in the lives of the people completing the forms. The problems can be aggregated for all the community agencies that have partnerships with the legal clinic and the data can be cumulated over time. The LHC is highly flexible. Changes can be made to the types of problems included in the survey in response to social changes in the community. Problems that apply uniquely to certain groups such as status Aboriginal people or refugee claimants can be included. Acknowledging the limitations of LHC data for describing the landscape of legal problems, these data have a level of granularity for small areas that cannot be achieved by sample surveys even with extremely large samples. The LHC data documents legal problems directly and is therefore superior to inferences about legal need using proxy measures derived from census or other official data that were collected for other purposes.

As an outreach strategy, it is important to understand that the LHC approach is more than just the check-up questionnaire that is used to identify hidden legal need. The LHC is the relationship between the legal clinic and community organizations that provides a pathway to legal help. However, the form itself provides data that are valuable for understanding unmet legal need in very small areas, useful data derived in the course of providing service that is not easily accessible by other means. Legal service providers using the LHC approach should bear this in mind in the way they use the LHC form. Decision-makers in government and legal aid commission bureaucracies who are responsible for encouraging and funding promising approaches for expanding access to justice should also pay close attention to this important feature of the legal health check-up approach.

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.