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)

Manitoba

Five community organizations were interviewed in Manitoba. Providing services to Aboriginal people is the target area for one organization, while two others identified this as a primary area of need in which they try to provide services. The remaining two agencies serve all people who come to them and do not target their services to any particular group(s).

Types of Poverty Law Services

Public Legal Education
Four of the organizations interviewed in Manitoba provide public legal education. One offers no services in this area.
Referrals
All of the organizations interviewed refer clients to other resources as appropriate to the particular needs of the client.
Preparation of Legal Aid Applications
None of the organizations interviewed will help to prepare legal aid applications.
Advice
General and legal advice is provided by all of the organizations interviewed, although for several groups the amount of legal advice available is relatively limited.
Advocacy
Four organizations are open to providing advocacy services, with two of these regularly offering services in this area. One respondent noted that staff cannot do any advocacy work because of this agency's charitable status.
Public legal education

The respondent from Winnipeg Harvest noted that the goal of this organization is to try to raise community consciousness about issues related to poverty, and to educate people about these issues. The organization does not produce its own literature, but does distribute information produced by other organizations. The Community Unemployment Help Centre respondent estimated that approximately 10 percent of the work of this agency is in the area of public legal education, particularly in terms of public interest advocacy and social policy. Norwest creates literature promoting its programs and services, but the particular public legal educational events co-ordinated by the organization depend on program staff. However, they include community outreach activities and information sessions. While this organization does engage in poverty law advocacy, a large part of its work concerns health issues.

The Workers' Organizing Resource Centre offers a different kind of public legal education, in that it trains clients on how to handle their own legal issues. This kind of training currently happens on an individual basis, but the respondent noted that the organization would like to expand services to include workshops on various legal issues - for example, handling your own appeal - with accompanying pamphlets and other information.

Referrals

All of the organizations interviewed refer clients to a variety of other resources as needed. For legal matters, groups reported referring clients to legal aid, Aboriginal legal aid, public legal education and information agencies, and (for two agencies) private bar lawyers. Other places where referrals are given include a wide variety of community groups (including workers' centres, women's organizations, and Aboriginal groups), government offices, band offices, and the Human Rights Commission. When asked about relationships with other groups, only one organization did not refer to a system of cross-referrals. This respondent noted, instead, that opinions may be sought from other organizations, but that advocacy usually remains internal.

Advice

Advice is offered by all of the organizations interviewed in Manitoba, typically both general and legal. Winnipeg Harvest offers general advice in the form of information and referrals, as well as providing mediation between welfare recipients and workers, landlords and tenants, and so on. Staff will also help with the completion of some forms (e.g., income tax), but do not generally provide legal advice in the sense of directing the client on a course of action for handling a legal issue. For this kind of assistance, clients are generally referred to legal aid. However, Winnipeg Harvest does have a relationship with some private bar lawyers who will work with clients on a pro bono basis to provide advice, and sometimes a legal aid paralegal will visit the organization to do a workshop for clients.

The provision of general and legal advice was characterized as a significant component of the services of the Community Unemployment Help Centre. These services are provided in Employment Insurance matters, and include filling out forms, providing information, and answering questions. Norwest offers a similar range of services, noting in particular that staff provide procedural assistance including assistance with forms, writing letters, or calling an organization or office on a client's behalf.

The Workers' Organizing Centre will assist clients in setting up appointments with income assistance, workers' compensation, legal aid, or other relevant groups, as well as helping to complete forms and providing general information. As mentioned above, this organization also provides training to individuals on how to handle particular legal issues. A respondent from the Centre noted that the amount of legal advice offered by this agency is limited, and is an area in which it would like to expand its services.

The advice available through the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg is not specifically targeted to poverty issues, but staff will provide assistance or intervention where necessary on an individual basis. This can include assistance with completing forms, in addition to answering general questions and providing information, but the lack of staff makes it difficult to make this a comprehensive service. The respondent noted that, while staff are not very involved in the provision of legal advice, they will use contacts with other community members to find someone to advise clients on particular issues if needed.

Advocacy

The Community Unemployment Help Centre and the Workers’ Organizing Resource Centre are the primary bodies providing advocacy in poverty law issues. The Unemployed Help Centre assists only with Employment Insurance (EI) matters, acting as a lay advocate for clients at tribunals if they have been denied benefits. The respondent estimated that this constituted approximately 25 percent of the work done by this organization in the EI area. Workers’ Centre staff act as advocates at income assistance tribunal and appeals - a role that the respondent characterized as peer advocacy. This organization relies on the “shop-steward” model of representation, through which claims are handled in the same manner as union grievances. A respondent from the Centre reported that this system has worked extremely well for the organization.

Norwest has provided some advocacy services for appeals of denial of workers’ compensation benefits, though this is not a primary service area for the organization. The respondent noted that advocacy would likely be provided in other issues as well, if the need arose, but Norwest has not yet had any such cases. Similarly, the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg respondent commented that this organization would likely provide advocacy services if necessary, but the need has not yet arisen.

The only organization that explicitly said that it does not do advocacy work is Winnipeg Harvest. According to the respondent, this group is precluded from doing advocacy work by its charitable status.

Types of poverty law issues

Employment Insurance (EI)

Only one organization provides assistance in EI matters, with work in this area constituting 80 percent of its workload. Interestingly, this organization did not characterize its work as being in the area of poverty law. The other four organizations refer clients with EI questions to other agencies, with one respondent noting that some peripheral involvement may be provided (for example, answering basic questions about rights and responsibilities).

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

Three organizations noted that the assistance they provide in CPP/OAS matters is limited to the provision of very basic information and/or referrals. Two of these noted that they rarely receive inquiries in this area, and one indicated that it supports seniors groups and works in coalition with them. The remaining two organizations do not provide any assistance in CPP/OAS issues.

Income assistance (IA)

For three organizations, income assistance is a main service area, with one noting that approximately half of the inquiries it receives concern this issue. Interestingly, a respondent from one of these three groups commented that this organization is the only group dedicated to addressing income assistance issues in Winnipeg. Given the resources available in the other organizations, however, there clearly are other avenues for assistance.

One organization noted that, while income assistance is not a key area in which services are provided, staff do sometimes provide assistance to people who have been denied benefits. The fourth organization refers clients with income assistance questions to other groups.

Housing and landlord/tenant

One organization provides comprehensive assistance with landlord/tenant issues. In addition to offering information and education, this group has a mediation team that facilitates talks between tenants and landlords. If such efforts are unsuccessful, staff will assist clients in landlord/tenant matters.

Three organizations offer limited assistance in the landlord/tenant area, with one noting that it would like to expand services in this area but is constrained by the lack of resources. According to this group, there is no organization in Winnipeg that is focussed on addressing housing issues. One organization provides only referrals on these matters.

Workers’ Compensation (WCB)

Three of the organizations interviewed in Manitoba provide assistance with WCB matters. The services provided by two groups are relatively limited: for one agency, WCB issues do not arise often; for the other, cases that involve more than basic information are referred to the WCB appeal board, community groups, or to legal aid. The third group noted that the primary body dealing with WCB is the provincially funded Workers’ Advisor office. However, the organization will either assist people or refer them elsewhere in the event of a backlog. Of the two remaining groups, one provides only referrals on WCB matters, while a respondent from the other noted it has not yet received any inquiries in this area (though staff may provide some assistance should this issue arise).

Debtor/creditor

The only service offered for debtor/creditor issues by the organizations interviewed is referrals to other community resources, and, by one organization, the provision of some basic information.

Other issues

Several organizations mentioned Aboriginal law and health issues as key areas of concern in Manitoba for which there are not enough resources. One organization also noted that staff deal with issues in the areas of human rights and employment standards.

Staffing and funding information

Types of staff

The organizations interviewed in Manitoba characterized their staff as community workers, outreach workers, general staff (program development, communications), and peer advocates. No organization has staff with legal training.

Several organizations rely on volunteers, including pro bono private bar lawyers, students, and others to assist in service provision. One organization noted that it contacts legal aid lawyers when legal assistance is needed. One group expects to increase its staff from one paid person to two or three paid persons in the next few months.

Sources of funding

The organizations interviewed in Manitoba receive funding from a wide variety of sources, including the federal and provincial governments, the United Way, Regional Health bodies, unions, the Manitoba Law Society, and donations from community members.

Two organizations reported that the United Way has been a long-term and stable source of funding. Conversely, two of the three organizations receiving funding from the province reported that this support is unstable, and subject to change according to the party in power. The one respondent who did not raise stability issues with respect to government funding is from an organization that has a tripartite funding relationship with federal, provincial and municipal governments.

One of the representatives who characterized government financial support as unstable highlighted as a key problem the province’s adamant stance against providing financial support to advocacy services. Cuts to the funding previously available to organizations doing advocacy work have had a huge effect. Organizations like the respondent’s are still trying to locate new sources of funding (federal government, Law Society, Aboriginal community) to keep their work going, but some groups have actually disappeared (e.g., the Manitoba Anti-Poverty Organization). Overall, the system for delivering poverty law services in the province is described as much more sporadic since the imposition of the cuts.

One group receives funding through donations only. Although this is a long-term funding arrangement for the organization, the respondent characterized it as unstable. Another group relies on donations and fundraising to raise 20 percent of its funding (the remainder is provided by the province and the United Way). The largest funder of one group is the Regional Health Authority, providing financial support that is both long-term and stable. For another group, unions are historically the most significant source of funding.

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 Manitoba. Three respondents commented that they were unable to answer questions about their experiences with the system for delivering poverty law services because these questions pertained to issues outside of their areas of expertise.

Problem areas
Lack of services for Aboriginal peoples

Several organizations pointed to the lack of services targeted to Aboriginal people in issues relating to poverty in general, and legal support in this area in particular. Suggestions were not forthcoming as to how to develop such services, but the respondents noted that this is a key problem that needs to be addressed.

Lack of services

One respondent suggested that there are generally just not enough services for low-income people in Manitoba, often because of a lack of human and financial resources. Advocates are mostly part-time and are trying to combine their advocacy activities with other job responsibilities. These people often do not have a lot of specialized training, or the opportunity to pursue it. The respondent noted that this organization would like to establish a peer advocate training program to permit greater consistency in and recognition of the work done by advocates. The work of advocates is particularly valuable when dealing with poverty law issues, given that low-income people do not have easy access to the justice system or to other channels through which their opinions can be heard and their rights respected. In a similar vein, another respondent suggested that more options for the funding of advocacy work are needed outside of charitable status, since this approach actually discourages advocacy activities.

Success stories
Dedication of poverty law advocates

One organization noted that the most successful feature of the poverty law system is the dedication and determination of the people working to provide poverty law services. Despite ongoing struggles about funding and the fact that many people are volunteers, the work they do is the backbone of the current system.

Ontario

Five community organizations were interviewed in Ontario. None of these organizations identified any specific group(s) to whom their services are targeted, other than low-income people in general, and one agency pointed out that the definition of what counts as "low-income" is left up to potential clients. Two of the five organizations interviewed in Ontario did note that they restrict their services to adults: one assists only those aged 25 and over, and one does not provide any services to youth.

The organizations interviewed represent several areas of the province of Ontario, including the Northern area, the Capital region, and the London-Windsor region. Although groups in the Toronto area were contacted for this study, no interviews were completed due to a lack of time and/or lack of response on the part of potential participants.

Types of Poverty Law Services

Public Legal Education
Four of the five organizations interviewed in Ontario provide public legal education services. Most of these services involve the distribution of printed information and materials, although two organizations regularly do public speaking and organize workshops.
Referrals
All of the organizations refer clients to a wide range of other resources. Community Legal Clinics were highlighted as a particularly important referral resource.
Preparation of Legal Aid Applications
None of the groups interviewed regularly assist clients with the completion of legal aid applications.
Advice
The advice offered by four of the organizations interviewed is largely in the area of procedural assistance (completing forms, writing letters, and so on). The organizations are reluctant to direct clients on a particular course of action..
Advocacy
Three organizations provide lay advocacy at tribunals and hearings.
Public legal education

The Thunder Bay Coalition Against Poverty distributes self-help materials, most of which it accesses through Public Legal Education Ontario and other organizations. Windsor-Essex Low Income Families Together (W.E.L.I.F.T.) is also an information provision organization, making available to the public materials on a wide variety of legal and other topics. Staff at this group also occasionally organize workshops or meetings to share information about new legislation or policy developments.

In addition to providing pamphlets and other materials, Link staff have created a "survival package" on income assistance. Staff at this organization also participate in public speaking events, demonstrations, and other campaigns, but the respondent noted that most of their work is on an individual basis with clients. Similarly, Life Spin both distributes legal information materials and is involved in other kinds of legal education, including the co-ordination of workshops and educational seminars for a variety of groups. Staff at this organization run advocacy training courses, and have produced an advocate training manual. The respondent from the London Unemployment Help Centre noted that this group is not involved in the public legal education arena.

Referrals

All of the organizations interviewed refer clients to other resources as appropriate to the situation and their legal issue. These referral resources include a wide variety of other community organizations, government offices, food banks, legal aid, and, specifically, Community Legal Clinics that are part of the legal aid network. All of the organizations explicitly mentioned these CLCs as an important resource for clients with poverty law problems (although a respondent from the London Unemployment Help Centre noted that this group most often refers clients to legal aid if they are confronted with criminal matters). A Thunder Bay Coalition Against Poverty respondent noted that, while staff refer clients to other community organizations on a variety of matters, there are no resources that specifically address poverty law.

Preparation of legal aid applications

None of the organizations interviewed regularly assists people with the preparation of legal aid applications. The respondent from Link noted that staff may very occasionally provide some help in this regard.

Advice

The services offered by W.E.L.I.F.T. are limited to information provision and referrals. Clients with legal questions or problems are always referred to other resources. The other four organizations provide both general and legal advice, particularly in the area of procedural assistance. As noted above, respondents indicated that their organizations are typically unwilling to direct clients as to a particular course of action on a legal matter, so legal advice is not provided in this sense.

Staff of the Thunder Bay Coalition Against Poverty will make calls or write letters on behalf of clients, complete forms, and provide other general advice. Link provides general advice and information on various aspects of the legal system and how to navigate it, as well as accompanying clients to meetings, making calls on their behalf, assisting with forms, and other similar services. Similarly, Life Spin extends appropriate general advice and information to clients, in addition to the kinds of procedural assistance mentioned above. The respondent from this organization noted that staff prefer to let clients make decisions about how to proceed on their own, whenever possible, to empower them to take action independently. However, further assistance may be provided to people who are unable to negotiate the system themselves.

Advocacy

Three organizations provide lay advocacy in poverty law issues. The London Unemployment Help Centre limits this assistance to cases concerning Employment Insurance, particularly the denial or termination of benefits. Life Spin staff will accompany clients to tribunals and hearings in a lay advocacy capacity, particularly in the income assistance area, but also with respect to Employment Insurance, CPP/OAS, and housing matters. Similarly, Link staff act as lay advocates in income assistance cases, mostly in appeals of benefit denials. The respondent noted that the role played by Link staff at hearings is limited to providing moral support, although some staff have received training through Community Legal Clinics on rental housing tribunals, so more work will be done in this area in the future.

W.E.L.I.F.T. and the Thunder Bay Coalition Against Poverty do not provide any advocacy at tribunals or hearings. The Coalition respondent commented that there is no need for the organization to provide this kind of service because it is an area covered by Community Legal Clinics, where clinic staff have expertise in appeal processes.

Only one organization in Ontario provided any data on its poverty law services.

Number of Poverty Law Clients, 2000-2001*
Poverty Law Issue Public Legal Education General Advice/ Assistance Advocacy at Tribunals
EI - 400 5
CPP/OAS - 180 5
Income Assistance 1,000 2,400 40
Housing - 950 3
WCB - 20 -
Debtor/Creditor - 640 -
Other 1,000 1,100 -
TOTAL 2,000 5,690 53

* The numbers in this chart are all estimates.
Source: Data collection charts for Ontario.

Characteristics of Poverty Law Clientele, 2000-2001*
Client Characteristic Percent of All Clients
SEX Female 70
Male 30
AGE Under 19 10
Age 20-35 40
Age 36-55 40
55 and over 10
LANGUAGE# English 99
French 1
Other 0

* The numbers in this chart are all estimates.
# Refers to the language in which services are provided.
Source: Data collection charts for Ontario.

The cost of these services was estimated by this organization to be $61,000 in 2000-2001.

Types of poverty law issues

Employment Insurance (EI)

One organization interviewed in Ontario works predominantly in the EI area, while three other groups will provide some assistance (information and/or referral), but do not receive a lot of inquiries. One organization does not provide any assistance in EI matters, but the respondent noted that it does not receive any requests for assistance in this area.

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

Two organizations regularly work in CPP/OAS matters, while two others will provide some assistance (information, referral, assistance with forms, accompanying clients), but they rarely receive inquiries in this area. One respondent noted that organizational staff refer clients elsewhere on CPP/OAS matters.

Income assistance (IA)

IA is the primary issue addressed by three organizations interviewed in Ontario, with two of them providing lay advocacy services. Frequent problems encountered include the denial of benefits, with one respondent noting that more difficulties have arisen under the Ontario Works legislation. Two organizations provide only referrals on IA matters.

Housing and landlord/tenant

As with IA, three organizations frequently deal with housing and landlord/tenant issues. Assistance ranges from the provision of basic information and general advice to procedural assistance (writing letters, making calls, completing forms) to lay advocacy. Two organizations refer clients elsewhere on housing and landlord/tenant matters.

Workers’ Compensation (WCB)

None of the organizations interviewed provide significant assistance with WCB matters, with four noting that referrals are the primary intervention (although one of these groups may provide some procedural assistance). One organization does not provide any assistance on issues concerning WCB.

Debtor/creditor

Only one organization provides assistance with debtor/creditor matters, principally in the area of utility services (and cut-offs). The primary services provided by this group are information and procedural advice and assistance. Three other organizations noted that clients may be referred elsewhere on debtor/creditor matters, with the remaining group responding that staff do not offer any assistance in this area.

Staffing and funding information

Types of staff

The three organizations with paid staff characterized these employees as lay advocates. One of these organizations has only one advocate at present, while the other two also rely on students and volunteers in the delivery of their services. Two of the organizations interviewed are completely staffed by volunteers, with no paid staff members.

Sources of funding

Two organizations receive funding from the United Way that was characterized as stable. For one group, the United Way is the sole funder. Other sources of funding are varied: one organization receives money from the provincial and municipal governments; one from the Law Foundation; two organizations receive some funding from unions; two rely on donations; and three partially rely on their own fundraising activities. Respondents from two organizations noted that they do not receive funding specifically for poverty law advocacy work, using money from other areas of programming to cover this work. Among funding sources, only the government support was characterized as stable.

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 Ontario.

Problem areas
Increasing demand versus lack of resources

The primary weakness in the current system for delivering poverty law services in Ontario, noted by four respondents, is the lack of resources available to support this work. Respondents particularly highlighted the fact that Community Legal Clinics are overburdened with more clients than they can handle. Two representatives attribute this in part to the new income assistance regime created by the Ontario Works legislation - the “regressive” nature of this legislation has increased the number of people with legal problems, but there has been no corresponding increase in the resources directed towards poverty law advocacy services. As a result, it is increasingly difficult for clients to access Clinic services. Since staff lack the time to accommodate all those in need of assistance, the result is often a “targeting” of available services towards a narrower range of issues. Overall, several respondents suggested that more lawyers and community legal workers are needed in the poverty law area to keep pace with the demand for legal assistance in this area, and to give people options in accessing the support they need. One respondent also suggested that, with more resources, Community Legal Clinics could play a role in the policy advocacy area.

According to two respondents, housing is a particular area where more support is needed. One organization also highlighted income assistance as an area in which services need to be expanded, along with family law (as it intersects with poverty issues). This respondent also suggested that further opportunities for one-on-one advocacy should be developed. People who are unable to negotiate the system themselves benefit from individual assistance, particularly in light of the ongoing legislative changes in Ontario. People are unable to keep up with these developments, and cannot educate themselves quickly enough about the laws and regulations affecting them.

Lack of funding for community organizations

One respondent noted that community organizations are trying to fill the gaps left by the legal system, but that these groups need more avenues for funding support. Community organizations can play an important role in poverty law advocacy, because they are often not bound by as restrictive a package of regulations as legal aid, in terms of the issues covered and clients eligible for assistance. This greater flexibility means that a solution can sometimes be found before legal intervention is required.

Success storeis
Community Legal Clinic network

The only positive feature of the current poverty law system in Ontario, highlighted by four respondents, is the Community Legal Clinic (CLC) system within legal aid. Despite the pressures CLCs are confronting in terms of increased demand for services, respondents considered these offices to be a very valuable resource for both clients and other organizations. Having a network of CLCs, staffed by people with expertise in the poverty law area, increases the options available to people with legal problems, and provides community groups with a resource to contact for information, support, and training opportunities.

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