Internet and Telephone-Based Services in Ontario’s Community Legal Clinics (2011-07-27)
Kerri Joffe, Staff Lawyer (On Leave), Arch Disability Law Centre
This article is, in part, a response to an article published in the newsletter last year, and available on the ILAG website, entitled Applying New Client Service Technologies Legal Aid Ontario, Canada by Charles Lafortune, Director, Strategic Technology and Innovation
Some recent significant changes to legal aid in Ontario have involved a move towards internet-based and call centre services, many of which have replaced in-person services. For example, in 2008 Legal Aid Ontario launched a call centre that now provides thousands of low-income individuals, access to general information, referrals and summary legal advice each year. Despite this change, most of the over 70 community legal clinics in Ontario continue to provide most of their services in person. However, it appears that community legal clinics may soon come under pressure to implement a similar shift towards telephone and internet-based services. Legal Aid Ontario has, for example, recently allocated a significant sum of money for interpretation and translation towards a telephone-based interpretation service.
Some argue that a move towards electronic and telephone services increases efficiency, improves our ability to measure customer satisfaction, and allows for overall cost-savings, an increasingly important consideration. Others feel that such a shift creates boiler-plate lawyering, reduces the quality of services provided, and is not an appropriate service delivery model for many legal aid clients.
To consider how this kind of change may impact Ontario’s community legal clinics and their clients, it is important to understand the unique position of clinics in their communities. Most clinics define and organize their services based on the communities they serve. The majority of Ontario clinics are small organizations that deliver legal services to particular neighbourhoods or geographically defined communities. In addition, there are several clinics that provide legal services to various low-income communities of interest such as persons with disabilities, seniors, South Asian Canadians, injured workers, and other groups. Clinics are similar to more traditional legal aid services, in that both provide legal advice and representation to low-income clients. However there are several defining characteristics that all clinics share which distinguish them from more traditional services: community governance, poverty law practice, and delivery of a broad range of services.1
Each clinic is governed by a community-elected Board of Directors, which must include members of the community that the clinic serves. Boards participate in decisions about which services and what legal issues should be prioritized according to community need. This is one way in which clinics stay connected to the legal issues that concern their clients and it ensures that the services a clinic provides are those that are most needed by its community. It also ensures that each clinic is accountable to its particular community, whether geographic or interests-based. Community governance enables clinics to be flexible and responsive to the needs of their particular communities.
Clinics practice poverty law, an area of law and/or type of practice that is not easy to define. Generally, clinics practice in areas of law that particularly affect low-income individuals and disadvantaged groups, such as housing, social assistance, income maintenance, pensions, workers’ compensation, employment insurance, human rights, education, and various types of government programs and benefits. Poverty law also includes systemic legal issues that impact a clinic’s broader community, such as inadequate social assistance rates or discrimination against students with disabilities in education. Unlike more traditional legal aid work, which is generally limited to the needs of individual clients, poverty law practice is concerned with the welfare of individual clients and the community as a whole. Such an approach recognizes that the legal problems of low-income and disadvantaged groups cannot be remedied by individual casework alone, but must also be addressed at a broader policy level.
Clinics use a broad array of services to advocate on behalf of their individual clients and communities. Most clinics provide the following services: legal advice and representation to individual clients or groups; referrals for legal and non-legal services; law reform, involving advocacy to reform existing laws, programs and policies that have an adverse impact on a clinic’s community or advocacy to create new laws, programs or policies; public legal education, involving the publishing of written materials or delivery of presentations; and community development, involving various kinds of capacity-building activities that support individuals and communities to self-advocate. Some clinics also conduct test case litigation. The availability of a variety of tools to tackle legal problems makes clinics uniquely able to address poverty law issues. For example, a clinic may litigate a successful test case, and then conduct a law reform campaign to ensure that laws and policies are updated to reflect the test case win.
Community governance, poverty law practice, and delivery of a broad range of services determine the unique kind of community lawyering practiced in Ontario legal clinics. These qualities give clinics their strengths: an ability to address systemic legal issues, strong ties to the communities they serve, and an ability to adapt and provide services that are uniquely tailored to the needs of their communities. Changes in service delivery models, such as the move towards telephone and internet-based services, have the potential to either enhance or erode these strengths.
Increasing the capacity of clinics to provide services by telephone or over the internet can create greater accessibility for some clients, such as those who live in rural or remote parts of Ontario, those with mobility disabilities, or those who are not able to leave their homes. However, a move towards telephone and internet-based services often corresponds with a reduction in in-person services. Relying too heavily on telephone or internet services would reduce accessibility, creating barriers for clients such as those who require in person contact in order to communicate effectively. Another concern is that a move towards telephone and internet-based services erroneously assumes that many or all clients have or can get access to these technologies. This is simply not the case for many low-income and homeless clients. As legal practitioners, an important consideration is that client confidentiality may be jeopardized, depending on the type of technology used and the service being delivered.
Perhaps most significant is the danger that too great an emphasis on the use of telephone and internet-based services could erode the broad range of services clinics provide and the amount of systemic work they do. Along with a move towards telephone and internet-based services often comes an emphasis on measuring efficiencies and client satisfaction. While both are important to clinic work, these measurements may not be appropriate for systemic projects, which are often on-going in nature, require the participation of multiple staff and partners, and have long-term outcomes that may only be realized months or years after the project was begun. Clients may continue to experience similar legal problems and frustrations while a law reform campaign or community development project is underway, and may only report positive results a long time after the project was initiated or completed. Moreover, even if it is successful, some systemic work does not have an immediately obvious effect for clients. For example, the impact of a successful test case may not be felt by clients for several years until a similar issue is brought before a court that applies the test case ruling. Since efficiencies and immediate client satisfaction are often inappropriate measurements for systemic projects, increasing the use of these measurements may reflect poorly on clinics, thereby creating a disincentive for clinics to continue conducting systemic work.
Expanding the use of telephone and internet-based services can have a very positive impact on Ontario’s community legal clinics. Many clinics already utilize technologies such as email, websites, internet message boards, and Skype to increase the accessibility and quality of their services. However, too great an emphasis on the use of telephone and internet-based services can create barriers that prevent clients from accessing services, reduce the extent to which clinics conduct systemic work, and ultimately erode some of the characteristics that give clinics their strength and uniqueness. Any move towards increasing telephone and internet-based services must respect clinics’ connections with their communities by allowing individual clinics to determine how and to what extent such a move will be implemented. This will preserve each clinic’s ability to adapt to and meet the needs of its own community. In addition, an increase in telephone and internet-based service must not mean a decrease in the capacity of clinics to provide in-person services. Rather, technologies can and must be used to enhance the various ways in which clinics reach their communities. Attention must be paid to the ways in which legal aid and clinic work is measured and evaluated. Inappropriate measurements may erode systemic legal work, ultimately harming low-income clients and communities. If we want to preserve a strong legal aid system, any shift towards telephone and internet-based services must be implemented in a way that supports the unique kind of community lawyering practiced by Ontario legal clinics.
1. For a much more detailed analysis of the characteristics that define community legal clinics please see: Lenny Abramowicz, “The Critical Characteristics of Community Legal Aid Clinics in Ontario” (2004) 19 Journal of Law and Social Policy 70.