An Analysis of Poverty Law Services in Canada

INTRODUCTION

This report provides a descriptive profile of the legal services available for poverty law issues in each of the Canadian provinces and the Northwest Territories.[2] Included in this profile are both the services offered through legal aid (Part One) and the services provided by a variety of community organizations addressing poverty law issues (Part Two). A summary of the poverty law services offered by legal aid and community organizations is presented in Part Three.

There is no single definition of "poverty law" used by legal aid plans or community organizations. For our purposes in this report, six common issues were selected as the key categories for data collection: Employment Insurance, the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and Quebec Pension Plan (QPP) and Old Age Security (OAS), income assistance, housing and landlord/tenant, workers' compensation, and debtor/creditor. This is not an exhaustive list, and other matters commonly considered by respondents to fall into the poverty law classification are mental health, child protection, some family law, and consumer law. In addition, some community organizations understand poverty law to include any legal issue affecting a low-income person - in other words, the definition of poverty law relates more to the person accessing services than to the type of services they are accessing. While the services that community organizations provide to low-income persons rarely extend into more technical areas of law (notably criminal, immigration and refugee, and some family issues), it is likely that the information many have provided in their "poverty law" activities addresses a wider range of issues than the six listed above.

Methodology

The information on provincial legal aid plans presented in Part One was collected through a review of annual reports and other relevant literature, a series of interviews with key provincial informants, and the collection of quantitative data from legal aid plans and other organizations.

The Web sites of the legal aid plans were the primary source for the literature review. Many of the larger provinces' plans post annual reports, overview statistical information, and planning documents on their Web sites, making them particularly valuable resources (notably those of B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Quebec). Less information was available online for the smaller provinces, with legal aid plan representatives in some of these provinces reporting that there is no current Annual Report available for distribution. Web site materials were, accordingly, supplemented with literature accessed through law libraries and the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics.

Interviews with legal aid plan representatives focussed both on assembling a more precise description of the kinds of poverty law services provided by legal aid than is available in annual reports, and on collecting the insights of legal aid representatives about the adequacy of the current system for delivering these services. Accordingly, respondents were not only asked about the nature of staffing and service provision, but also about the strengths and weaknesses of available services and key gaps in the system currently in place.

The data collection process with legal aid representatives met with only partial success. Data collection charts were prepared in advance of the interviews in the expectation that clearly laying out the categories to be filled in by legal aid respondents would facilitate the data collection process. However, in no case did respondents complete the charts as distributed. Instead, they compiled information into new charts that accorded more closely with the information collected in that province and the database categories used to track legal aid cases. In combination with already significant differences in the way in which legal aid is delivered in each jurisdiction, and frustration on the part of some respondents concerning the amount of data requested, this lack of consistent reporting complicated efforts to compare data.

The information on community organizations presented in Part Two was collected through key informant interviews and through the distribution of data collection charts. Since the focus of this project is on available legal resources in the poverty law area, the interview and data collection process for community organizations focussed on those providing some kind of legal assistance (public legal education, advice, assistance with legal aid applications, and advocacy/representation). Community organizations providing these kinds of services were found through several channels. Legal aid representatives were asked about other organizations providing poverty law services in their province, and these organizations were contacted and interviewed where possible. If further community contacts were still needed in a province after the contacts suggested by legal aid had been exhausted, organization respondents were asked for more suggestions of groups to call, or a Web search for additional organizations was performed. In several provinces - particularly those that do not offer any legal aid coverage for poverty law matters - legal aid contacts were unable to suggest any community organizations to contact. Accordingly, the additional methods described above were regularly used in this context.

As with legal aid data collection, a series of charts was prepared in advance to try to facilitate the process. While community organizations typically did complete the charts as delivered, several expressed frustration or confusion about how to classify their clients into the categories provided. On one hand, this was due in part to the fact that many community organizations do not view public legal education, general advice, legal advice, and so on, as discrete services. The approach to service delivery is more continuous, with clients being provided with one or several kinds of assistance, depending on their needs and the knowledge and resources of staff. On the other hand, difficulty completing the charts can also be attributed to the fact that many groups either do not collect any data on the clients they serve, or do not collect this data in as detailed a manner as requested. With respect to the latter, for example, some groups have information on the total number of clients they serve on a given issue, or the total number of clients that staff represent at a tribunal, but, in many cases, this information could not be cross-referenced.


[2] The Yukon Territory and Nunavut are not discussed in this report because assessment of the poverty law services available through both legal aid and community organizations is being addressed by a separate study on access to justice in the North. The Northwest Territories has been included in the legal aid section of this report because initial contacts had been made, and initial data collected, prior to the initiation of the northern project. However, no community organizations in the Northwest Territories were interviewed for Part Two of this report.

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