An Analysis of Poverty Law Services in Canada

Part Two: Poverty law services provided by community organizations



Part Two of this report presents information collected from community organizations involved in poverty law work in each of the ten provinces. Before proceeding, it is important to note that the information presented in this section is not an exhaustive account of all the poverty law work being done at the community level. The scope of this project permitted only a small sample of organizations to be interviewed. In most of the provinces, there are a number of additional groups that deliver services in the poverty law area whose programs, resources and expertise are not reflected in the discussion below. Accordingly, while certain trends do emerge in terms of services, problems, and successes, it should not be assumed that these trends reflect the experience of all community organizations involved in the delivery of assistance in poverty law.

As with legal aid plans, the community organizations interviewed were asked for both descriptive information and data concerning their clientele. The descriptive material collected addresses the nature of an organization’s services, the types of issues on which they work, the staff involved in doing this work, and the funding they receive. In addition, respondents were asked to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the current system for delivering poverty law services in their province, notably in terms of what is working well about this system (success stories), what is not working well (problem areas), and any outstanding gaps. The data collection process was designed to collect information on total numbers of clients, numbers of clients by specific legal issue, programming costs, and client characteristics.

While the descriptive component of the interviews yielded much valuable information, the amount of hard data actually collected from community groups was quite limited. Some groups simply do not keep a great deal of information on the clients they serve, while many others were unable (or in some cases unwilling) to use limited staff hours to provide the requested numbers. As such, the data presented in Part Two of the report should not be taken as representative of the number of clients assisted with poverty law matters by community organizations.

Information on the poverty law services offered by community groups is organized into five categories (public legal education, referrals, preparation of legal aid applications, advice, and advocacy). A few words are warranted to explain the kinds of activities included in each of these categories for the purposes of this report.

In the interviews, respondents were asked about the involvement of their organization in providing public legal education, the preparation of legal aid applications, general advice, legal advice, and advocacy. Public legal education includes the organization of workshops or other educational activities and/or the provision of self-help educational materials (pamphlets, brochures). Preparation of legal aid applications includes any assistance delivered in the process of applying for legal aid. General advice covers referrals to other organizations or to legal aid, as well as the provision of basic information, while legal advice includes assistance with a specific client case, such as helping to complete forms or accompanying clients to meetings. Finally, advocacy is described as action as an advocate on behalf of a client at tribunals and appeals (whether as legal or lay counsel).

For the purposes of compiling interview data for this report, the breakdown of services types initially used during the interviews has been changed slightly. Public legal education, preparation of legal aid applications, and advocacy, remain the same. The provision of referrals to other organizations or to legal aid has been made a separate category, because many organizations characterized this as a key function for their staff and a key service to clients, in terms of matching them with appropriate services. With the exception of referrals, general advice and legal advice have been combined into a single category. A single advice category has been used because of the overarching message from many community respondents - that they are uncomfortable with the implication that the provision of advice means directing clients on a specific course of action. Accordingly, the distinction between the kinds of activities included in the “general” versus “legal” advice categories is not only difficult to maintain, but artificial in terms of the types of activity broadly characterized as “advice” by respondents. In addition, community groups generally do not view their services in terms of discrete categories, so similar forms of assistance, like the provision of general and of legal advice, are more effectively discussed simultaneously.

British Columbia

Nine community organizations were interviewed in B.C. All of these organizations are involved in working directly with low-income people, and, for most, low-income status is the only criterion for receiving assistance. However, some organizations do target their service to specific groups, notably women, people with disabilities, and immigrants/refugees. The organizations interviewed are located around the province, including the Lower Mainland/Vancouver, the Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island, the Northwest region, the North-Central region, Peace River, and the Kootenays.

Types of Poverty Law Services

Public Legal Education
All of the organizations interviewed in B.C. are involved in the provision of public legal education, most commonly through the organization of information sessions, speaker series, workshops, or the provision of educational materials.
All of the organizations interviewed refer clients to a wide range of additional resources. The most notable of these is legal aid.
Preparation of Legal Aid Applications
One organization regularly assists people with legal aid applications, and one will advise people on the process and resources available through legal aid. Two other organizations may assist people who have been denied legal aid coverage.
Preparation of Legal Aid Applications
One organization regularly assists people with legal aid applications, and one will advise people on the process and resources available through legal aid. Two other organizations may assist people who have been denied legal aid coverage.
All of the organizations interviewed provide general advice and assistance, and most also offer some kind of legal advice or procedural assistance (for example, the completion of forms, accompaniment to meetings and other proceedings). Four organizations noted that they will not advise clients on a specific course of action, and one of these groups commented that staff do not provide any legal advice.
All of the organizations interviewed provide advocacy services in poverty law issues.

Public legal education

Seven of the nine organizations interviewed in B.C. provide workshops, information sessions, or speakers on issues relating to poverty law in their community. Six agencies have written information available for their clients, whether produced internally or collected from other groups.

Together Against Poverty Society is engaged in community education, particularly in the areas of housing (tenancy rights) and poverty (educating people about their rights and the system). The kinds of activities in which this organization is involved include workshops, speaking engagements, working in coalition with other groups, and sitting on local advisory committees (for example, social planning, housing). Together Against Poverty also has a variety of materials available for distribution, and co-operates with legal aid in providing poverty law workshops and advocacy skills sessions.

Active Support Against Poverty, the Nelson Advocacy Centre, and the Advocacy Access Program of the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities provide a similar range of public legal education activities. Active Support offers seminars on welfare rights, living in poverty, and the poverty game, and makes a range of other groups' written materials available to their clients. The Nelson Advocacy Centre provides workshops on topics as requested by the community (including training for advocates), in addition to producing its own written information and distributing information provided by other organizations. The Advocacy Access Program organizes informational workshops, primarily on applying for disability benefits and changes in laws and government programs. This organization also has general information available on its Web site (legal rights and responsibilities, accessing community resources, levels of government and their responsibilities), as well as written materials and advocacy manuals for individuals and groups.

MOSAIC, the Newton Advocacy Group Society, and Branching Out all provide workshops on a variety of issues. The respondent from MOSAIC noted that workshops are an effective mechanism for educating the immigrants and refugees with whom they deal, since people from other cultures are often more comfortable with face-to-face interaction. In addition, the MOSAIC representative commented that refugees may not be literate even in their own language, so written materials are of limited utility. A common workshop topic for the Newton Advocacy Group Society is disability benefits and related issues (both federal and provincial), although sessions are provided on other topics when requested (for example, welfare rights, advocacy training). The respondent from Branching Out noted that they do presentations at local schools, colleges and other places about the poverty law system, how it works, people's legal rights, and so on.

Terrance Anti-Poverty Group Society does not provide workshops, but this organization does produce some of its own written materials, as well as collecting and distributing materials from other places. The Downtown Eastside Women's Centre respondent noted that this organization operates a legal advocacy program that is designed to provide information and resources (not legal representation) to women who come to the Centre. The number of women using this program has increased considerably over the last few years.


All of the organizations interviewed identified referrals as an important part of their work. Respondents noted that clients are referred to a wide range of places, as appropriate to their needs, and based on the ability of staff to answer their questions or provide adequate assistance. Respondents from the Newton Advocacy Group and Branching Out suggested that referrals are the key service because the aim of staff is to set clients up with the appropriate resources for their problem, and, accordingly, to ensure that they get the help they need.

The primary places identified for referrals include legal aid, government offices, and a wide range of other community organizations, with legal aid being the referral resource cited most regularly. The Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre representative noted that the most common referral resources are mental health services - a service area outside staff expertise. The respondent from Branching Out noted that there are some private bar lawyers in the community to whom clients are sometimes referred, because there is a co-operative relationship between these lawyers and organization staff. A representative of the Nelson Advocacy Centre noted that, once legal aid is gone, staff will have to refer poverty law clients to the lawyer referral service - a much less comprehensive kind of assistance.

Preparation of legal aid applications

Only the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre regularly assists people with the preparation of legal aid applications. Staff at the Advocacy Access Program of the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities will advise people about the services available through legal aid and tell them how to access these services. In addition, they may assist clients in setting up meetings with lawyers at pro bono legal clinics, the Law Students Legal Advice Program, and legal aid.

Respondents from the Newton Advocacy Group and Active Support Against Poverty noted that staff may try to assist people who have been denied legal aid coverage by referring them to other resources, writing letters on their behalf, assisting them with the appeal process, and providing general advocacy and support. The Newton Advocacy representative noted that the same sort of assistance would be extended to people denied other kinds of services.


All of the organizations interviewed assist clients through the provision of general and/or legal advice. All organizations provide general assistance, including answering client questions, providing information, and offering referrals to relevant resources. The other services provided by organizations are described below.

Delivering advice to clients was characterized as a “big part” of the work of MOSAIC. In addition to answering questions and providing information, this includes assistance with forms and procedural assistance with the legal process (e.g., what has to be done to file for appeal). Staff at Terrace Anti-Poverty also assist clients with the completion of forms, and will also act as “interpreters,” making telephone calls on a client’s behalf to alleviate misunderstandings, collecting information, and so on. Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre staff also help clients to complete forms.

Together Against Poverty characterizes the assistance provided by organizational staff as “whatever is needed.” In general terms, this includes answering questions and providing information (particularly in the areas of income assistance and tenancy). However, some staff members also provide legal advice for areas within their expertise. For other issues, Together Against Poverty regularly makes use of legal aid lawyers at local community offices. As with Together Against Poverty, respondents from Active Support Against Poverty noted that people “don’t come to their office and receive ‘no’ for an answer” - they always receive some kind of assistance. This can include information and materials, assistance with the completion of forms (an important area for this agency), or advice on tribunals and appeals.

A respondent from the Newton Advocacy Group noted that its staff make a distinction between the provision of general assistance and actually directing clients on a course of action. The focus of this agency is to inform clients about their situation and give them options, but ultimately let them choose what to do. In this vein, staff will advise people about available resources, benefits, and their legal rights and responsibilities, as well as assist them to assess a problem and identify possible avenues to address it. In addition, the respondent noted that staff will accompany mental health clients to formal proceedings. Similarly, a respondent from the Advocacy Access Program of the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities noted that staff members are unable to provide legal advice to clients, because they are not lawyers. Clients may receive legal information, but they will not be directed as to a specific course of action.

The Nelson Advocacy Centre and Branching Out adopts a similar stance. Nelson staff educate clients about the system and provide legal information, but will not advise clients on a particular approach. The respondent from Branching Out commented that the more clients can do for themselves, the better they feel about their situation. In addition to providing people with information and options, however, Branching Out clients have the option of “falling back” on organization staff if necessary. For example, staff will accompany clients to meetings if they are unable or unwilling to go alone, and will assist with the completion of forms. Some legal advice may also be provided in areas where staff have expertise.

Newton Advocacy also organizes a weekly pro bono legal clinic through which clients can receive a free half-hour of advice. This includes only ideas, information, and direction on how to proceed - no specific action is taken on behalf of clinic clients. There are eligibility criteria for participation in this clinic, but these criteria are not as stringent as those set by legal aid.


Terrace Anti-Poverty and Together Against Poverty provide advocacy for income assistance and tenancy issues, although Together Against Poverty does some work on Employment Insurance as well. Branching Out, Active Support, Newton Advocacy, and MOSAIC also provide some advocacy in poverty law issues. For Active Support, this can include acting in a support capacity or as a lay advocate. The Newton Advocacy Group noted that advocacy may be provided when there is no risk of escalation - that is, when there is no risk that the matter may expand to involve a criminal issue. However, a respondent from this organization noted that, due to the increasingly legalistic nature of poverty law, the involvement of lawyers is increasingly necessary. The Downtown Eastside Women's Centre provides advocacy in income assistance, housing, workers' compensation, and a variety of other issues. The Advocacy Access Program of the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities provides advocacy in the setting of administrative tribunals, most notably in issues pertaining to disability benefits.

The MOSAIC representative noted that, while some representation is provided through its Advocacy Program, clients are also regularly referred to legal aid. There is no requirement that program staff have legal training, so varying degrees of legal assistance are provided, depending on the skills of the person filling the position at the time. Legal representation is provided by MOSAIC to only non-Canadian born people who meet certain financial eligibility criteria. In practice, however, the respondent noted that financial issues do not typically arise. Clients who are financially ineligible are referred to the lawyer referral service or provided with instruction on how to "shop" for a lawyer.

Nelson Advocacy Centre staff act in a paralegal capacity to provide lay advocacy (although, technically, they are not paralegals). However, respondents from this organization noted that they are often successful in preventing a case from getting to the point of a tribunal. If clients are provided with good information, applications are properly completed, available options are adequately assessed, and the case is appropriately framed, Nelson staff believe that tribunals can be avoided. In the respondents' view, "most cases go through if workers are offered a realistic appraisal of what the client should get." Nelson Advocacy representatives noted that resolving cases through negotiation tends to yield faster results, and better protection for clients in the event that they have done something wrong. Together Against Poverty shares the view that tribunals are not the most common outcome for poverty law clients, insofar as staff will work to resolve cases before they reach this point.

Representatives noted that the Nelson Advocacy Centre has recently been receiving more appeal cases (particularly in the area of disability benefits), which the respondents suspect is because more people are being denied benefits. In addition, respondents noted that the Nelson Advocacy Centre may now choose to pursue cases that are rejected by legal aid due to lack of merit. This has increased following the restrictions imposed by B.C.'s new income assistance legislation (e.g., challenges to the two-year time limit for receipt of welfare benefits).

The following data was submitted by three organizations in B.C. on their poverty law activities. Although all of the numbers presented in these charts should be considered estimates, it is clear that the number of clients receiving services for income assistance matters far exceeds the other poverty law issues listed.

Total Number of Poverty Law Clients, 2000-2001
Poverty Law Issue Total Number of Clients Receiving Assistance
EI 20
Income Assistance 3,320
Housing 648
WCB 16
Debtor/Creditor 128
Other 1,782

Source: Data collection charts for B.C. Data for this chart has been amalgamated from the information provided by three organizations.

One of the groups that submitted data reported that the total number of poverty law clients is increasing. According to this respondent, staff assisted 2,455 clients in poverty law issues in 2000-2001. Due to recent legislative and regulatory changes, it is predicted that the number of poverty law clients is likely to reach 5,000 in 2001-2002, going by trends at the time of the interview.

One organization that was unwilling to complete the Data Collection charts did estimate that staff assist approximately 12,000 people each year. No information is available on the distribution of these clients across different areas of service provision, or across various legal issues. However, the focus of this organization is on income assistance and CPP/OAS matters.

Number of Poverty Law Clients by Type of Service, 2000-2001
Poverty Law Issue General Advice/ Assistance Legal advice and/or Advocacy Preparation of Legal Aid Applications Other Assistance1.*
EI 12 0 8 0
CPP/OAS 60 3 26 190
Income Assistance 2,6401.# 6021.# 78 0
Housing 154 337 59 98
WCB 0 16 0 0
Debtor/Creditor 60 0 0 68
Other 486 1,077 104 115
TOTAL 3,412 2,035 275 471

Source: Data collection charts for B.C. Data for this chart has been amalgamated from the information provided by three organizations.

As the above chart reveals, the provision of general advice or assistance is the activity in which community organizations most frequently engage, although legal advice and advocacy are also common areas of service provision. It is important to recall, however, that the above discussion of available advice services indicates the activities most commonly included as legal advice tend to be procedural in nature (assistance with forms, making calls on a client's behalf, etc.), and do not involve specific legal assistance. In addition, several respondents expressed the view that staff prefer not to provide advice in the sense of directing clients on a particular course of action. When the above chart is considered in light of these statements, it appears that the bulk of poverty law activities in which community organizations are engaged are of a general and/or procedural nature rather than a specifically legal nature.

Of the three organizations that submitted data on their legal advice and advocacy clients, two of these groups were able to break down this information across different legal issues. The chart below indicates that income assistance is a primary area for both legal advice and advocacy, while housing is the most common issue for both tribunal and appeal level cases.

Legal Advice and Advocacy Clients by Type of Issue, 2000-2001
Poverty Law Issue Legal Advice/Assistance Advocacy
Tribunal Appeal Total
EI 02.* 02.* 02.* 02.*
CPP/OAS 3 02.* 02.* 02.*
Income Assistance 400 72 189 261
Housing 27 100 210 310
WCB 02.* 02.* 16 16
Debtor/Creditor 02.* 02.* 02.* 02.*
Other 44 452 546 998

Source: Data collection charts for B.C. Data for this chart has been amalgamated from the information provided by two organizations.
2.* These columns do not include any clients counted in the "Other Assistance" category on the data collection charts.

Two organizations involved in providing both information and advocacy services provided data on the characteristics of their poverty law clients. With respect to sex, both organizations predominantly serve women. One of these organizations targets its services specifically to women, while the other reported that 68 percent of clients are female, and only 32 percent male.

With respect to age, both organizations reported that adults are the primary client group, constituting 93 percent of clients for one organization and 85 percent for the other. Youth constituted only 5 percent and 12 percent of the clientele of these groups, and seniors 2 percent and 3 percent, respectively.

Only one of these two organizations provided data on the ethnicity and language of poverty law clients.

Ethnicity Percent of All Clients Mother Tongue Percent of All Clients
Aboriginal 70 English 79
Asian 8 Asian 8
Caucasian 19 Aboriginal 3
Black 3 Other 10

Source: Data collection charts for B.C.

Four organizations interviewed in B.C. submitted cost information on their poverty law services. One organization does not break down cost information by type of service, but rather by program area. In 2000-2001, this organization reported that the Welfare Advocacy Program cost $52,000 (two full-time advocates). The cost of the Mental Health Consumer Advocacy Program (providing services in consumer and other poverty law issues to clients with mental health problems) was reported at $764,000 (two full-time advocates). Finally, the Child Protection Advocacy Program cost $70,000 in 2000-2001 (one program manager working four days a week, and one part-time staff member).

A respondent from the second organization estimated that, in most programs, poverty law advocacy services cost approximately $40 to $65 per client (although this excludes some intensive educational and counselling services offered to survivors of violence, etc.). Based on the estimated number of poverty law clients in 2000-2001 also served by this organization, poverty law services cost between $98,200 and $159,575. This number should be treated with caution, given that it is not based on a detailed accounting of costs or program participants.

The third agency estimated that the cost of its poverty law services was $80,000 in 2000-2001. Cost breakdowns based on particular types of services are not available. The fourth organization reported that the cost of its services totalled $215,000 in 2000-2001. A breakdown of these costs across service types is provided in the chart below.

Public Legal Education General Advice/ Assistance Legal Advice/ Assistance Preparation of Legal Aid Applications Advocacy at Tribunals Advocacy at Appeals
$17,200 $27,950 $10,750 $25,800 $53,750 $79,550

Source: Data collection charts for B.C.

Types of poverty law issues

Employment Insurance (EI)

Two organizations regularly provide assistance with EI, while a third will provide general information and assistance to clients with mental health problems in this area. A fourth organization usually provides assistance with EI, but the advocate responsible for this area is on leave so the number of clients served in this area has declined considerably.

Respondents from three of the remaining organizations noted that staff may occasionally assist people in EI matters if the issue in question is within the expertise of staff. However, these agencies generally refer people to legal aid, EI offices, or other groups for assistance. A fourth group reported that they do not generally provide assistance with EI, but may provide some information, particularly on medical issues. The final organization does not offer any assistance with EI matters.

Canada Pension Plan/Old Age Security (CPP/OAS)

Five organizations provide assistance in CPP/OAS issues, with two respondents noting that this is an area in which they receive quite a few inquiries concerning both federal and provincial disability benefits regulations. Four of these groups provide services ranging from the provision of general information and assistance with forms to advocacy services; the fifth generally only provides basic advice. A sixth organization provides general information and assistance to clients with mental health problems in CPP/OAS issues.

The three remaining organizations primarily refer people elsewhere for assistance with CPP/OAS matters, notably to legal aid, seniors' organizations, and government offices. However, one of these three groups occasionally provides limited direct assistance, depending on whether the matter is within staff expertise, while a second has some written materials available in the CPP/OAS area.

Income assistance (IA)

All of the organizations interviewed identified IA as a primary area of work. The kind of assistance provided by the organizations ranges from the provision of basic information and assistance to providing lay advocacy at hearings and tribunals. Two organizations specialize to some degree in dealing with applications for disability benefits and associated issues.

One respondent noted that the poverty law system is becoming more legalistic, and that there is, accordingly, a greater need for lawyers to be involved with formal processes. At the same time, however, this respondent indicated that lay advocacy and peer support remain essential, to prevent people from "falling through the cracks." This is particularly true in light of changes in legal aid, and the pending elimination of the majority of targeted services in the poverty law area.

Housing and landlord/tenant

After income assistance, housing and landlord/tenant matters represent the largest area of work for the poverty law organizations interviewed in B.C. Six organizations noted that they regularly provide services in this area, and that it is a significant part of the work they do (although one of these groups noted that it does not deal with arbitration cases in this area, but refers clients to the Tenants Rights Action Coalition).

Two other organizations used to provide advocacy services in housing and landlord/tenant issues until their funding was cut. One group now works in co-operation with legal aid through weekly clinics, in order to ensure that the many clients previously referred to them by legal aid for housing assistance have a resource to turn to. The other agency formerly had a full-time advocate providing direct client services in the housing area, but staff can now only offer general information and a self-advocacy guidebook (although the respondent did note that staff may occasionally help with housing matters if they are already working with a client on another issue). In addition, one staff person at this organization does systemic community development work on housing issues.

The final group does not do a lot of work in housing issues, and does not provide representation at hearings. However, some materials may be provided to clients who have questions in this area.

Workers’ Compensation (WCB)

Only one organization identified WCB as a regular area of service, although two other groups noted that some assistance may be provided if staff have the relevant expertise. The remaining eight organizations noted that either they provide no assistance in WCB cases or clients are referred elsewhere (notably to legal aid or the office of the Workers’ Advisor). One of these eight respondents commented that they do not handle WCB cases because they are so complicated, while another representative noted that these cases take too long to be handled at the community level.


Five organizations provide limited assistance with debtor/creditor matters. For two of these groups, this includes the provision of general information or advice, notably on how the system works and the resources available in the community to address problems in this area. The other three groups noted that they generally refer people elsewhere for debtor/creditor problems, although two respondents suggested that some very limited assistance may be provided if staff have the relevant knowledge. The remaining four organizations do not provide any assistance in debtor/creditor matters.

Two organizations noted that other community resources that were previously in place to deal with debtor/creditor issues have now been eliminated, and that this will likely have significant consequences. These respondents pointed out that the absence of these resources may yield greater pressure on community groups to fill in the gaps in this area - a role that they do not expect to be able to adequately take on.

Staffing and funding information

Types of staff

The organizations interviewed generally characterize their staff as advocates. The majority of staff do not have legal training, although many have some knowledge of poverty law based on previous educational (advocate certification), employment, or personal experiences (e.g., experience with welfare, Employment Insurance, disability benefits). The staffs of the organizations interviewed are typically quite small in number, and volunteers and students are commonly involved in the delivery of services ranging from administrative work to direct client assistance. One organization is staffed entirely by volunteers; there are no paid staff. The respondent from this group noted that core volunteers tend to rely on their connections with other members or groups in the community for information and resources, as appropriate.

Five organizations have staff with some kind of legal background. Some or all of the advocates in two organizations have legal supervision as a condition of the funding they receive, and, in one of these groups, the advocates themselves have paralegal training. In this instance, however, the respondent noted that staff actually go beyond the services that would be offered by a paralegal, providing both direct client assistance and advocacy in issues that affect the community more broadly.

In a third of the five organizations with legal staff, there are two staff members with some legal training - they are the only two members of the 13 staff who have not had personal experience with the poverty law system. The fourth agency reported that some staff have received training through the Legal Services Society, and that the organization tries to encourage staff to take advantage of these training opportunities whenever possible. The final group currently has a lawyer on staff providing advocacy services, but this is not a requirement of the position. This is the only organization that did not report using volunteers, due to concerns about confidentiality.

Sources of funding

The primary funding sources for eight of the nine organizations interviewed in B.C. are the Law Foundation and the provincial government (notably the Ministry of Human Resources). After these two sources, other smaller funding bodies include churches, local businesses, donations (money and in-kind), token membership fees, casinos and gaming, private foundations, health and mental health groups, the United Way, and fundraising campaigns. One organization receives no funding for its activities.

The Law Foundation provides funding to six of the organizations interviewed in B.C. This funding tends to be identified by respondents as stable, although one respondent noted that nothing is really stable in the advocacy area since the last provincial election - particularly concerning poverty issues. A second representative pointed out that, prior to the announced cuts, Law Foundation funding may not have been characterized as especially stable, but, by comparison now, it looks very reliable.

The Law Foundation is the major source of funding for three of the six groups it supports, while two other groups receive the majority of their funding from the province. For one organization, primarily funded by the Law Foundation, charitable gaming constituted the second largest source of funding, followed by the United Way and municipal government contributions. Apart from the Law Foundation’s, United Way dollars were the only other donations characterized as stable.

Five organizations receive funding from the provincial government. All five are funded by the Ministry of Human Resources, with other provincial sources for three groups being the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Community, Aboriginal, and Women’s Services, and the Ministry of Attorney General. All of the organizations receiving provincial funding characterized it as profoundly uncertain in the present climate of cut-backs and fiscal restraint. Regardless of whether the province is a short- or long-term funder for these agencies, respondents from each one commented on the uncertainty that now confronts them.

Charitable gaming constitutes the primary source of funding for the core advocacy services provided by one organization. This funding was considered to be generally stable right now, but the respondent expressed concern about what might happen in the future, given the direction of the provincial government. Other sources of funding relied on by this group include donations and specific project contracts (current contracts are with Status of Women Canada and B.C. Housing, although the latter is expected to be lost in June). A second organization that receives money from gaming reported that, over time, this has been its most stable funding source. The major funder of this organization is the provincial government, although it also receives support from the Law Foundation and a variety of other, smaller sources.

Strengths and challenges of available poverty law services

The following section presents respondents’ comments concerning what is working well, what is not working well, and any key gaps within the current system for delivering poverty law services in B.C. One of the nine organizations interviewed did not provide answers to questions about experiences with the system for delivering poverty law services in B.C.

Problem areas
Impact of cuts

All of the organizations interviewed in B.C. expressed general concern about the impact of the cuts currently being implemented in the province. As one representative characterized it, B.C. is “facing a crisis” - the cuts will increase demand for advocacy services at the same time as funding for these services is being reduced.

Respondents identified a wide range of areas of concern, notably reduced access to services for citizens and reduced funding for organizations delivering services, including the virtual elimination of poverty law coverage. Several organizations reported that they are receiving an increased number of calls from people worried about the impact of the cuts, and that they are concerned that community groups will not be able to “take up the slack” left by the reduction or elimination of other services. A different respondent noted that the poverty law system in B.C. was already “barely adequate” prior to the cuts - after the recently announced initiatives are implemented, essentially there will be no services.

Loss of legal aid for poverty law issues

An overarching concern expressed by all respondents is the loss of the poverty law legal aid services previously available in B.C. On one hand, organizations expressed concern that this inevitably means a sharp decline in access to justice for low-income provincial residents, particularly for rural residents and those in other areas where access to services is already difficult. On the other hand, the lack of poverty law legal aid will considerably increase the burden placed on community organizations. Community groups will be the only resources remaining to “take up the slack” in terms of legal services for poverty law clients. However, the ease with which lay advocates can tackle legal issues is decreasing as poverty law becomes more technical and complex. The result will be that more people will “fall through the cracks,” increasing the anger and frustration of a segment of the population that tends already to feel disenfranchised.

Lack of funding

Apart from the general concern raised by all organizations about the impact of the cuts on funding levels, two respondents specifically noted that funding for poverty law work is too restricted. The lack of funding prevents organizations from expanding their services into areas not currently covered, and from assisting more clients with the poverty law system. This is particularly problematic in light of recent cut-backs to legal aid - since the number of persons encountering legal problems in poverty law matters is increasing at the same time as support for organizations dealing with these issues is decreasing. In addition, one respondent noted that, as the amount of funding declines, the potential increases for harmful inter-organization disputes about the little funding that is available. This escalates the risk of division among groups as they compete for support.

One respondent suggested that, with the cuts to provincial government services, remaining Ministry of Human Resources employees will be “desperate” for community support, as they are inundated with requests for assistance from community members. This respondent suggested that, in light of this impending crisis, the provincial government may have to make additional money available for advocacy work. However, it was also acknowledged that there is a great deal of insecurity overall, regarding funding for poverty law, that does not appear likely to be alleviated in the near future.

Finally, one respondent noted that there is a particular lack of funding available to support education and training in the poverty law system. More resources need to be targeted to ensuring that people know how to budget the meagre resources they do receive, and that they have basic life skills. At present, the lack of support in this area means that too many people are falling through the cracks.

Ineffectiveness of legal aid

One respondent insisted that, even prior to the cuts, legal aid was a “highly ineffective system” in the poverty law area. While legal aid coverage may technically have been available for poverty law issues, legal aid staff were “not really interested in knowing the issues, the community, or the resources available” in this area. As a result, they were often unable to assist or direct people appropriately. The respondent also suggested that legal aid staff tended to see poor people as “undeserving” of legal assistance, and that access to legal aid services was essentially non-existent in certain parts of the province even prior to the cuts currently being implemented.

A respondent from another organization noted that, prior to the cuts, legal aid did not provide coverage for all poverty law issues. Insofar as any issue not covered by legal aid was already a key gap in the poverty law system in B.C., the recently announced changes will serve to ensure that the number of gaps will significantly increase.

Success stories
Positive features of the poverty law system prior to recently announced cuts

Two organizations noted that, prior to recent developments, the poverty law system was functioning fairly well, overall, within the boundaries of the funding that was available. While there is a long-standing need for increased resources, respondents from these groups felt that the range and distribution of available services was “ok - not fabulous, but ok.” Similarly, these respondents suggested that the legal representation previously available through legal aid for poverty law matters was fairly good, though clearly there were some key areas where coverage needed to be extended.

Similarly, one respondent noted that the availability of confidential, community resources, delivered by people who have personal experience with poverty law issues, is a valuable aspect of the poverty law system in B.C. When people have experience with poverty issues, they can relate more easily to clients and understand the pressures they are confronting. In this way, community workers are distinguished from Ministry workers, who, this respondent argued, cannot really understand the situation of poor people.

On a similar note, another respondent commented that, for clients, the immediate availability of referrals, information, advice and advocacy services from community groups is the most positive feature of the poverty law system. The fact that the organization can deliver both short- and long-term assistance on a variety of fronts is of great benefit to clients, and is a feature of community groups that should be replicated in more locations.

Law Foundation support

One respondent emphasized the positive role played by the Law Foundation in terms of its support for advocacy work in the poverty law area. According to this representative, the Foundation “recognized the importance of funding community agencies to provide legally supervised advocacy services,” and should receive credit for this initiative.

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