Toronto, ON – A new report calls for greater recognition and support for community organizations as pivotal to advancing access to justice for Ontarians. Based on research and consultations, the report highlights the difference between access to justice and access to the formal legal system, and explains how community organizations play a critical role in bridging the justice gap by providing community justice help.
The report notes that the legal profession and legal service regulators have often discouraged and even prohibited help for law-related problems by service providers other than licensed legal professionals, and calls on the profession to acknowledge and support the vital role played by community-based organizations in helping people access justice.
Community organizations work on the frontlines helping people, every day, with their law-related problems. "Ontarians have established a path to community justice helpers such as settlement workers, advocates against gender-based violence, social workers in healthcare settings, and other frontline specialists who can provide help," says CLEO Executive Director Julie Mathews, who co-authored the report with Professor David Wiseman, University of Ottawa Faculty of Law. "These workers are responsive to the lived experiences of their clients, and have established a high level of trust from the communities they serve. They’re responding to the myriad of problems that people face during difficult periods in their lives."
The report, Community Justice Help: Advancing Community-Based Access to Justice, explores how community organizations in Ontario can be better equipped and supported to help people with life-affecting problems that have a legal element. "Community organizations make meaningful contributions to helping people to access justice on a daily basis, and we are pleased to support work that contributes to the discussion about how they can best do that," says Tanya Lee, Chief Executive Officer of The Law Foundation of Ontario, the funder behind this research.
The report notes that community justice helpers have the training and experience to provide effective assistance and that, working in not-for-profit settings, they are governed by policies and procedures that protect the dignity, privacy, and welfare of clients. Workers at not-for-profits are not directly paid by clients.
"We have had an ethical code in our office for the last 30 years, and we know the system and we know the agents of the system," says Francisco Rico-Martinez co-director of the FCJ Refugee Centre, a settlement agency based in Toronto. "One of the mottos that we have in our office is people don’t leave with their hands empty. I don’t say we take the whole case, but we help."
Many Ontarians do not seek help from a lawyer or paralegal for their legal problems because it’s not financially feasible or because they don’t qualify for legal aid or help from a legal clinic. It can also be challenging to find a lawyer or paralegal who is sensitive to a client’s particular social and cultural contexts, or who speaks their language. And lawyers and paralegals typically have not been trained to – and are not expected to – address the full panoply of clients’ problems that may include elements relating to the law, as well as health, financial security, housing, and family support needs.
"We are not talking about 'second-best help'," Professor Wiseman, a co-author of the report, notes. "Often, people working at community organizations are in the best position to respond to clients’ multi-dimensional needs, especially in communities experiencing social disadvantage. Also, there are many types of law-related problems that do not require the specialist expertise of lawyers or paralegals and that can be effectively provided by skilled community justice helpers. To paraphrase the report: a lawyer’s help where necessary; but not necessarily a lawyer’s help."
The report notes the ongoing vital role played by Ontario’s licensed legal professionals, and emphasizes the importance of a well-resourced legal aid system and a thriving community legal clinic system that serve the most disadvantaged across the province, often in collaboration with community workers. It calls on justice system regulators, law-related associations, and justice policy makers to re-affirm their support for this role, and encourages lawyers and paralegals to look for further ways to partner with community-based groups.
Mathews concurs, saying, "Increasing access to justice requires solutions that are broader than improving access to licensed legal services providers. That has been our approach to date, and we still see huge gaps in people’s ability to achieve anything that approaches meaningful access to justice. We have to do things differently – and not-for-profit organizations embedded in their communities are already key sources of good quality help for people who need it."
CLEO (Community Legal Education Ontario/Éducation juridique communautaire Ontario) is a non-profit community legal clinic. For over 45 years, CLEO has produced clear, reliable legal information for those who experience barriers to accessing the justice system. Visit cleo.on.ca for more information. CLEO’s Steps to Justice website provides free legal information for people in Ontario.
About the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, Common Law Section
Located in the heart of downtown Ottawa on the ancestral territory of the Algonquin Nation, the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, Common Law Section’s faculty is composed of a wide range of experts, many of whom are renowned as leaders in their respective fields. Through their scholarship, many of our professors have contributed to the transformation of Canada’s legal systems as well as the ways in which law is practiced, taught and conceived.
About The Law Foundation of Ontario
Established by statute in 1974, The Law Foundation of Ontario is the sole foundation in Ontario with the mandate of improving access to justice. Through granting and collaboration, the Foundation invests in knowledge and services that help people understand the law and use it to improve their lives. Learn more at www.lawfoundation.on.ca. Julie Mathews' participation in the project was enabled by a Community Leadership in Justice Fellowship awarded by The Law Foundation of Ontario.
This research is supported by:
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