An Analysis of Poverty Law Services in Canada

Part Two: Poverty law services provided by community organizations

Part Two: Poverty law services provided by community organizations (continued)

Alberta

Six community organizations were interviewed in Alberta. Four of these organizations reported that they serve anyone who comes to them for assistance (although one of them is oriented towards ethnic-Chinese persons). One group noted that it provides assistance only to low-income people and does not handle any youth matters. The sixth organization targets its services to First Nations persons, although the respondent noted that it would not refuse service to other individuals. The organizations interviewed are principally located in the Calgary and Edmonton areas.

Types of poverty law services

The services offered by the organizations interviewed in Alberta are targeted to low-income people, but do not necessarily focus only on poverty law matters. For example, in addition to providing information and advice on the legal system and how to negotiate administrative proceedings, some organizations offer counselling and outreach services intended to support and assist low-income people. Since these kinds of programs are targeted to poor people in the same manner as assistance with poverty law issues, respondents often did not distinguish poverty law activities as a separate area in their descriptions of organizational services.

Public Legal Education
All of the organizations interviewed in Alberta provide some manner of public legal education services to low-income people, including workshops, information sessions, training, and the production and distribution of materials.
Referrals
All of the organizations interviewed in Alberta refer people to other resources, according to the needs of the client.
Preparation of Legal Aid Applications
Two organizations will help prepare legal aid applications.
Advice
Five organizations provide advice on poverty law matters, including assistance with the completion of forms. Two organizations also co-ordinate legal clinics through which clients can get advice.
Advocacy
One organization provides legal advocacy (although mostly for criminal matters), while another three offer lay advocacy services in poverty law matters.
Public legal education

The provision of information about various legal issues and processes was a key function identified by all of the organizations interviewed in Alberta. As one respondent noted, low-income people are typically outside the justice system, and providing information about legal rights and processes is a way to give these people a connection to the system.

The respondent from the Support Network characterized the organization as an information and referral agency. Staff help to educate people about poverty law (and other) matters by providing information and answering questions over the telephone. Similarly, the Calgary Chinese Community Services Association operates an information and referral service to which people can turn for assistance or materials on a wide variety of issues. A representative of Philia Advocacy commented that the provision of information is the "first function" of this organization, educating people about laws, policies, and other issues relevant to their situation. Student Legal Services has a wide range of pamphlets available, and law student volunteers provide legal information over the telephone. Native Counselling Services primarily provides information on court procedures, available legal options, and the obligations of their clients in dealing with the justice system. The Boyle Street Community Services Co-op distributes brochures and pamphlets produced by itself and other organizations.

Workshops, informational events and training sessions are also important activities offered by five of the organizations interviewed. The Calgary Chinese Community Services Association organizes speakers, workshops, outreach programs, and media presentations. Philia Advocacy conducts workshops for advocates, and Student Legal Services has a legal education and outreach section that goes to schools, shelters, addiction facilities, and so on. Native Counselling Services produces legal education videos and hosts workshops on a variety of topics. The Boyle Street Community Services Co-op conducts training workshops, and organizes outreach and counselling activities in the community in a variety of areas (street-involved youth, family support, adult, mental health).

Referrals

All of the organizations interviewed in Alberta will refer people to other community organizations, government offices, WCB, shelters, legal aid, and so on, according to the client's needs. Apart from the Support Network - which is exclusively an information and referral group - respondents reported that clients will typically be referred elsewhere if they require specialized services, if their case is particularly complex, or if they require information or assistance that is outside areas of staff expertise.

Preparation of legal aid applications

Philia Advocacy and the Boyle Street Co-op will help to prepare legal aid applications. Native Counselling Services noted that assistance in this area was previously offered but has been discontinued.

Advice

As noted in the above chart, five organizations interviewed in Alberta provide advice on poverty law matters. The Calgary Chinese Community Services Association co-ordinates legal clinics with volunteer lawyers twice a month, through which clients can get free legal advice. The Association arranges clinic appointments for its clients and provides interpreters for the clinics. If clinic lawyers believe that further legal assistance is needed, Association staff may arrange an appointment with legal aid for the client. Similarly, law students visit the Boyle Street Co-op once a week to provide a legal clinic-type service, making free legal information and advice available to clients. In addition to this service, Co-op staff provide general and legal advice on a range of subjects, provided that they have the necessary knowledge (if not, clients are referred elsewhere), accompany clients to appointments if they want additional support, and help complete forms and applications.

Native Counselling Services staff will assist with the completion of forms, but the respondent noted that staff do not provide advice in the sense of directing clients on a specific course of action. This is also the case at Philia Advocacy and Student Legal Services. The Philia respondent did not characterize the work they do as legal advice. However, staff at this organization will assist clients with the completion of forms and provide general advice and information on various issues. The Student Legal Services respondent noted that volunteers give clients information and options, but will let them make decisions about how their case should be handled.

Advocacy

Four organizations provide some advocacy services in the poverty law area. Student Legal Services provides legal representation in a variety of contexts. However, most of the work of this organization is in the criminal area, with the largest civil issue being landlord/tenant law. These services are provided to low-income people, and no services for youth are offered.

Staff at Native Counselling Services act as advocates at various administrative tribunals and proceedings. The examples noted by the respondent include human rights, workers’ compensation, and income assistance proceedings. Similarly, Philia Advocacy staff act as lay advocates in a variety of issues, including Employment Insurance, CPP/OAS, income assistance, housing and landlord/tenant matters, and workers’ compensation. The respondent suggested that the advocacy services offered are primarily intended to provide support to clients. Boyle Street Co-op outreach workers also provide lay advocacy, with the more complex legal issues being referred to legal aid.

Although it does not offer any advocacy services, the Calgary Chinese Community Services Association will provide clients with interpreters for legal proceedings.

Types of poverty law issues

Employment Insurance (EI)

The organizations interviewed do not provide a lot of coverage of EI matters. Two organizations do not deal with this issue at all; one organization provides only referrals; and one noted that the rare inquiries it receives are usually referred to Human Resources and Development Canada. The two remaining organizations noted that they do provide assistance with EI claims, by working with people who have been denied benefits or who have difficulty accessing the system. One of these groups explicitly noted that staff help prepare appeals and provide lay advocacy.

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

Three organizations provide only occasional assistance and/or referrals in CPP/OAS matters, with one noting that this is not a primary service area because there are other groups with services explicitly targeted to seniors. Three organizations do assist clients with CPP/OAS claims by preparing appeals and providing lay advocacy, or by providing information, writing letters, contacting government offices, helping to complete applications.

Income assistance (IA)

All six organizations interviewed in Alberta assist people with IA. Two noted that this is not a primary service area, and that assistance tends to be confined to providing information about the application or appeal processes and assistance with preparing cases for review boards. One of these groups also noted that staff will assist clients with IA matters if they have language problems. Three organizations do a lot of work in IA, with one characterizing this as its “primary” area. The services offered by these groups include the provision of information, assistance with applications, preparation of appeals, and lay advocacy at tribunal and review proceedings. One organization provides only referrals on IA issues.

Housing and landlord/tenant

Housing and landlord/tenant issues are one of the areas in which organizations in Alberta said they provide the most services. Although one agency provides only referrals, five others provide a range of services (with two respondents identifying housing as a “main” issue for their organizations). The services provided by these groups include the provision of information, advice, legal and lay advocacy in specific client cases (including at appeals, if necessary), general advocacy in housing issues, and co-operation with other community resources and organizations (including the police, rental agencies, and so on). One of these five organizations co-ordinates a housing registry through which staff work with landlords to identify low-cost housing options, help get clients placed in affordable accommodation, and work to get the support clients need from social assistance and other resources (security deposits, tenancy training on rights and responsibilities).

Workers’ Compensation (WCB)

Two organizations provide regular assistance in WCB matters, with one of these preparing appeals and providing lay advocacy for applicants who have been denied benefits or who have had their claims disrupted. Two organizations only provide referrals for WCB matters, with a third reporting that it may provide some assistance, but requests are so rare that this does not comprise a significant area of service delivery. The final organization also will respond to inquiries on WCB matters, but provides only basic information/referrals.

Debtor/creditor

None of the organizations interviewed reported providing significant services in the area of debtor/creditor law. One organization explicitly commented that staff do respond to inquiries and provide general information; the other five groups suggested that some basic assistance may occasionally be provided, along with referrals. A respondent from one organization noted that it is difficult to find a debtor/creditor resource that does not charge user fees to which to refer people.

Staffing and funding information

Types of staff

Only one organization - Native Counselling Services - has a lawyer on staff. The other organizations interviewed in Alberta characterize their staff as general workers, advocates, community workers, or outreach workers. Law students in particular, and other students in general, are also involved with several of the organizations on a volunteer or practicum placement basis. Student Legal Services is clearly a student-run organization, although volunteer students do operate under the supervision of professors and private bar lawyers. Volunteers are the key to the work done by some organization, both in terms of general administrative and other work, and by the private bar lawyers who staff legal clinics.

Sources of funding

There is no particular trend in the funding of the organizations interviewed in Alberta, although most receive some funding from government sources, whether federal (particularly the Department of Justice and Human Resources and Development Canada), provincial, or municipal. Provincial government funding was typically cited as least stable, with several respondents citing budget reductions as the cause of fluctuations, and changing budgetary and political priorities as a source of ongoing uncertainty. The provincial government (the Ministry of Children and Families and the Ministry of Health) is a major funding source for one group, and provides limited or project-based support for three others. The United Way is a long-term funding source for two organizations, and was characterized as stable by both. Similarly, the Alberta Law Foundation is a reliable source of financial support for two of the groups interviewed. Universities, private individuals, and fundraising/membership fees are additional revenue sources for some organizations.

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 key gaps within the current system for delivering poverty law services in Alberta.

Problem areas
Insufficient services

While several respondents pointed out that it is positive that there is a system in place for providing legal and support services to low-income people, this system remains inadequate. Too many people still “fall through the cracks” left between legal aid and other advocacy services. According to one respondent, community organizations are trying to fill these gaps, but their services are insufficient from the perspective of ensuring access to justice.

For example, one respondent cited a lack of legal aid coverage in Alberta for civil legal issues outside of family law. There have been advances in the family law and criminal law areas, but other civil law has lagged behind. According to this respondent, the problem is particularly evident in issues like landlord/tenant law - something that frequently affects low-income people, but for which there are few resources. This representative estimates that 30 percent of low-income people are, essentially, excluded from the justice system, and have limited ability to advance their rights in this area. What the respondent characterized as the “monopoly” of the legal profession in the justice system does not help this situation, since lawyers can, essentially, “pick and choose who they want to serve,” leaving little assistance available in less attractive or lucrative areas of law.

Lack of financial and human resources

Related to the above point is another respondent’s comment that there is not enough funding available to community organizations to deliver the services needed by low-income people. According to this representative, one result of funding limitations is that organizations end up having to target their services to a particular group or area of law rather than embracing a more holistic approach. Similarly, another respondent noted that too many community organizations rely on volunteers to deliver their programs. This leads to instability in service delivery, due to volunteer turnover and uncertainty about future human resources. A third respondent expressed a different opinion, pointing out that good services are being delivered in Alberta, and that the coverage provided by these services is fairly comprehensive. However, the problem is figuring out how to provide a sufficient level of services within the constraints imposed by time and funding.

Success stories
Individualized approach of community groups

One respondent suggested that a positive feature of the current legal system is that it embraces “a certain willingness to respect and be sensitive to disadvantaged people.” At the same time, this respondent noted that the role of community organizations is key, in that these agencies are willing and able to take a more individualized approach to addressing problems. Staff at these agencies recognize the importance of determining how much support is needed by each person, and the best way to deliver this support, in order to be able to provide services effectively.

Saskatchewan

Six community organizations were interviewed in Saskatchewan. None of these organizations has firm restrictions on whom they will serve, although three respondents pointed out that low-income and/or unemployed people are their primary clientele. Most organizations serve all of the people that come to them, though one group noted that its services are primarily targeted to refugees, while another suggested that "special attention" is paid to women, people with disabilities, youth, and First Nations people. A third organization has actively tried to recruit people with disabilities and First Nations people into its client group. The groups interviewed are located Saskatoon and Regina.

Types of poverty law services

Public Legal Education
All of the organizations interviewed in Saskatchewan provide some kind of public legal education services. These typically include the provision of information, and the co-ordination of workshops or other events.
Referrals
Most of the organizations interviewed in Saskatchewan refer clients to other resources as needed. Three agencies noted that these referrals include legal aid, while two do not refer clients to this service.
Preparation of Legal Aid Applications
Two organizations assist with the preparation of legal aid applications.
Advice
Four organizations provide general advice to clients. Two organizations explicitly stated that they provide legal advice, while a third suggested that extending services in this area is dependent on the particular situation and the knowledge of staff.
Advocacy
Three organizations will act as client advocates in formal proceedings, although one noted that this is performed very irregularly. A fourth agency will sometimes provides advocacy services, depending on the particular situation and the knowledge of staff.

One organization in Saskatchewan - Roots of Poverty - is unique among the groups interviewed for this project. It was originally formed to complete a short-term project intended to build community resources and empowerment around the issue of poverty (what poverty is, available resources to address it, strategies, and so on). The approach of this project included a variety of community forums and workshops designed to facilitate dialogue among community members (particularly low-income people), and to provide venues in which people can voice their concerns. These events provided an opportunity for informal learning, networking, and community development outcomes, and addressed topics ranging from facilitation to leadership to skill building. Given the unique nature of the Roots of Poverty project and the fact that it does not offer direct client services, information collected from this organization is not included is the discussion below of available poverty law services, staffing, and funding.

Public legal education

The Unemployed Workers' Centre provides information to clients on issues relating to all aspects of the Employment Insurance system. Similarly, the Public Legal Education Association (PLEA) produces and makes accessible to the general public information on a wide variety of legal topics. This activity includes writing pamphlets, guides, and articles for local newspapers, as well as speaking engagements, community lectures, workshops for legal skills, and free law classes.

Equal Justice For All provides speakers for events and organizes workshops upon request on a wide range of legal issues. These kinds of services typically are requested by schools, church social justice committees, hospitals, universities, and immigrant services organizations. Due to limited funding, Equal Justice reported that no publications or other documents are produced. The Regina Open Door Society co-ordinates workshops on employment issues, labour standards, policing, and other issues of interest to clients. Staff at Renters' Rights very occasionally host workshops - for example, on conflict resolution. This organization has monthly meetings to discuss tenancy rights, advocacy strategies, dispute management, and so on.

Referrals

Four of the organizations interviewed in Saskatchewan refer clients to a wide range of other resources, including community organizations, government offices, and support services, as appropriate to their needs and the particular issue. In addition to referrals, the PLEA respondent noted that this organization forms partnerships with other community groups in particular projects, and shares information and resources.

Three organizations noted that they refer clients to legal aid, with two of these noting other legal resources are also available for referrals (the John Howard Society, private bar lawyers, and some judges who will assist people "behind the scenes" by writing letters, etc.). Two organizations noted that they do not refer people to legal aid because there is no legal aid coverage for civil law issues.

Preparation of legal aid applications

Only the Regina Open Door Society and Equal Justice for All noted that they assist clients with the preparation of legal aid applications. However, the Equal Justice respondent noted that this kind of assistance is provided only to people who lack the skills to complete the application themselves.

Advice

The Regina Open Door Society provides general advice to clients on an individual basis if the issue is within the expertise of staff. Otherwise, the client will be referred to another resource. Renters' Rights staff also tend to provide only general advice, typically with the goal of ensuring that people understand the legal process, the options they have, and the key agencies involved. However, the respondent did note that staff "will go as far as we can" on behalf of a client, within the limits of their knowledge and experience.

The Unemployed Workers' Centre provides both general and legal advice to clients on Employment Insurance matters. Similarly, Equal Justice for All assists clients by providing general and legal advice on a variety of issues. For both organizations, general advice includes the provision of information on the problem(s) faced by a client, educating them about relevant legislation and policy, and ensuring that they know what their rights and responsibilities are. Legal advice includes help with the preparation of appeals (or other) forms, and, in the case of Equal Justice, writing letters on behalf of clients and gathering background information.

Advocacy

At present, the Regina Open Door Society only very occasionally acts as an advocate at formal proceedings (the respondent recalled only one instance of this, in an EI case). However, the Society is currently trying to expand its services to include non-legal representation in court and other formal proceedings. This new role would primarily be to provide support to clients, not to direct them on an appropriate legal course or action.

The Unemployed Workers’ Centre will provide representation at appeal proceedings on Employment Insurance matters. Equal Justice for All will act as lay advocate for clients in a variety of contexts, particularly income assistance. Staff who perform this role are not legally trained and, accordingly, tend to act largely in a support capacity. The respondent from Equal Justice noted that attendance at hearings was formerly a role played only by lawyers, but, in the absence of civil legal aid in Saskatchewan, other groups have had to become involved in this area.

As noted above, Renter’s Rights staff will do as much as they can on behalf of clients, within the constraints imposed by the knowledge and experience of staff. This may include engaging in mediation with clients or trying to negotiate an agreement between landlords and tenants. The respondent characterized this work as lay advocacy.

Types of poverty law issues

The Public Legal Education Association has information, publications, and workshops available on a wide variety of legal issues, including the six listed below.

Employment Insurance (EI)

The Unemployed Workers’ Centre is the primary resource in Saskatchewan for assistance with EI issues. Another organization noted that its staff used to do work in this area - up to and including appearing before appeal boards in cases of benefits denial - but now clients are generally referred to the Workers’ Centre.

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

Only one organization interviewed in Saskatchewan provides assistance with CPP/OAS issues. The services offered include information, general and legal advice, and advocacy at tribunals and appeals. The respondent noted that they receive a lot of inquiries from people who have been denied disability benefits on the assumption that their disability is not severe enough to warrant long-term coverage.

Income assistance (IA)

Income assistance is the principal area of service for one organization interviewed in Saskatchewan, constituting approximately 80 percent of its work. The most common problem encountered in this area is denial of both regular benefits and special benefits. A second organization will also assist clients with income assistance, typically by providing information, helping with the application process, and escorting clients to social services to meet workers.

Housing and landlord/tenant

Two organizations provide assistance with housing matters. In addition to providing basic information and education on housing issues, these groups will attempt to mediate disputes, resolve conflicts, and generally facilitate communication between tenants and landlords. Both organizations will also engage in advocacy, taking clients’ cases to the Rentalsman Office if necessary, if the issue is within staff expertise.

The respondent from a third organization noted that this group used to be the only source of advocacy in housing issues. With the advent of other specialized groups, staff now typically refer clients to these agencies, or to one or two private advocates who may take on cases in this area. This representative did comment that a problem for low-income people in the housing area is that they often cannot afford the filing fee that is charged for the initiation of an appeal (for example, for an unfair eviction).

Workers’ Compensation (WCB)

Only one organization will actually assist clients with the WCB application process, as well as with the initiation of complaints or appeals of benefit denial. A second organization provides only referrals on WCB matters.

Debtor/creditor

There are no direct services for debtor/creditor issues offered by the organizations interviewed in Saskatchewan, although two groups noted that they refer clients to other places. One respondent noted that a problem with referrals in this area is that available services often require the payment of user fees that low-income people cannot afford.

Staffing and funding information

Types of staff

Only one organization has lawyers on staff, and none of the agencies employ paralegals or community legal workers. However, a respondent from one group did note that it is currently looking for funding sources to train staff as community legal workers, in order to increase the legal expertise within the organizations.

Other organizations characterized their employees as outreach staff, lay advocates, and general community workers from a variety of backgrounds. One organization has a social worker on staff, but most rely on volunteers in some capacity. Another organization has no paid staff, relying exclusively on volunteers. Law and other students are also involved with many of these organizations, on a paid or volunteer basis, and one organization relies on private bar lawyers who volunteer their time.

Sources of funding

There is no pattern to the funding sources of the organizations interviewed in Saskatchewan. Funding is provided by federal (Justice Canada), provincial, and municipal governments, labour organizations, the Law Foundation, Social Services, District Health bodies, churches, community organizations, and fundraising activities.

Larger funding sources that were characterized as stable include the provincial government, labour organizations, and the Law Foundation. The one organization that reported receiving funding from Justice Canada suggested that it was also a relatively stable funding source for individual projects. One agency that receives funding from District Health bodies, as well as in-kind support from other community groups, also reported that funding is stable - although there is not enough of it.

The only group that described its funding as unstable reported annual grants from municipal government as the primary funding source. This support is supplemented by Social Services, churches, and fundraising activities.

One organization reported that it does not receive any specific funding for poverty law work or for work targeted to low-income people. This is just a component of their general work in the area of immigrant settlement.

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 Saskatchewan.

Problem areas
Funding cuts

One respondent reported that, at present, nothing in the system of delivering poverty law services in Saskatchewan is working well, because the province is currently in a cycle of cutbacks. In this context, support for services directed at low-income people is less likely to be forthcoming.

Legal aid coverage

Two respondents noted that the absence of legal aid coverage for civil law matters (outside of family law) is problematic, with a third pointing to under-representation in the poverty law area and limited access to services. The fact that there is no legal aid coverage for poverty law means that many low-income people have few places to turn for assistance. The legal aid system needs to be expanded to enable poor people to access justice services if they cannot afford their own lawyer. One respondent also noted that legal aid eligibility criteria are too strict, with the result that too many people are “falling through the cracks.” However, this is more relevant in the family and criminal law areas, since there is no coverage for other civil law matters.

Legal aid funding constraints

Two respondents noted that legal aid in Saskatchewan is overburdened, that staff are overworked, and that the result is a system that is inaccessible for many people. Staff have so many cases that they are unable to provide quick responses or action on a claim, with deleterious repercussions for clients who end up having to wait. One respondent attributed this problem to the funding constraints being faced by legal aid, and the fact that, with such a tight budget, the necessary expansion of staff and programming cannot be implemented.

Lack of resources

One respondent explicitly stated that the lack of funding for community groups is a key concern. For this representative, lack of resources is holding back community organizations from doing more work and helping more people. This situation contributes to the problem that many low-income people lack access to the assistance they need.

Related to the lack of resources is the complaint that there is no effective system for co-ordinating the involvement of private bar lawyers in the poverty law area. According to one respondent, many private lawyers are willing to - and do - perform this kind of work on a pro bono basis. As long as there is no system in place, however, there is no way of ensuring that clients’ needs are matched with the appropriate legal expertise.

Another point related to the lack of resources is one respondent’s charge that there are too many resources going into documentation and other materials needed to sustain project-based funding. Organizations that pursue and receive money on an individual project basis are putting too much time and money into researching available funding opportunities, doing interim reports, and other similar activities. This is an inefficient way of funding community groups, since it detracts from the direct client services that could be delivered.

In a similar vein, one respondent commented that advocates should be paid for what they do, and not simply provide services on a volunteer basis. The assistance delivered to clients by advocates is very valuable, and should be recognized as such.

Success stories
Access to public legal education

One respondent noted that the universal availability of public legal educational materials is positive, particularly in a place like Saskatchewan with a large rural population. Farmers and other rural residents need access to information on a variety of topics, but they are unlikely to be familiar with the community poverty network. Wide distribution of printed materials makes resources available with no stigma attached.

Mediation and conflict resolution options

Another respondent suggested that the mediation and conflict resolution strategies currently being used in the landlord/tenant area are an effective means of dealing with problems up front. This representative thinks that people often just want to have a chance to be heard or to have a voice - meetings and other forums where this can happen often lead to positive outcomes.

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