An Analysis of Poverty Law Services in Canada
Seven interviews were conducted in Quebec, although two people from one organization - the Association québécoise de défense de droits des personnes retraitées et semi-retraitées (ADQR) - were contacted. One representative is from the head office of this organization, and one from a regional office.
The majority of respondents in Quebec reported that their organizations generally provide at least some form of assistance to all persons who come to them. However, one representative did point out that, insofar as poverty law is linked to people with low incomes, a focus on issues of relevance to this group tends to emerge. A respondent from one organization noted that while all persons are eligible to receive information and general advice, specific criteria are imposed for the receipt of legal representation. Only one organization reported that its services are formally limited to a specific group (senior citizens), although another representative of this agency suggested that assistance will not actually be denied to other persons.
Three different organizations raised the issue of the geographic location of their services. Two of these groups noted that they will assist people from outside of their territories, while the third suggested that assistance may be given to people from other areas, even though the priority of the organization is serving its own region.
Types of Poverty Law Services
- Public Legal Education
- All of the groups interviewed in Quebec are engaged in public legal education activities. Five agencies organize workshops and information sessions, and five groups distribute written materials to their clients.
- All of the organizations refer people as appropriate to their needs. All respondents mentioned that legal aid was one place to which clients are referred.
- Preparation of Legal Aid Applications
- Three groups assist people with the preparation of legal aid applications. Some ADQR offices will also provide assistance in this area.
- All of the organizations interviewed provide some kind of general and/or legal advice, although for most groups legal advice is limited to assistance with forms or making inquiries on a client's behalf. Only one group provides direct legal advice and opinions.
- Four organizations interviewed in Quebec provide advocacy services in the poverty law area.
Public legal education
Five organizations in Quebec organize workshops or information sessions on poverty law matters. Regroupement de défense des droits sociaux, Association pour la défense des droits sociaux du Montréal Métropolitain and Comité des personnes assistées sociales de Pointe-St-Charles offer activities that focus on issues concerning income assistance. Services juridiques communautaires de Pointe-St-Charles et Petite Bourgogne also primarily works on income assistance matters, but sometimes provides information sessions on Employment Insurance as well. This organization does not work as frequently on EI matters as it did in the past, because there is now an organization that specializes in Employment Insurance matters (Action-Chômage). Action-Chômage provides information sessions to selected groups, often at the request of employers or unions, or at critical times (e.g., during large-scale lay-offs). ADQR does not co-ordinate workshops, but both respondents from this group noted that some sections (there are 40 around the province) organize monthly conferences on various topics. However, these conferences do not necessarily address poverty law, and some may not even have a legal focus.
Services juridiques communautaires de Pointe-St-Charles et Petite Bourgogne and the Comité des personnes assistées sociales de Pointe-St-Charles are also involved in training activities. Services juridiques communautaires supports other poverty law organizations by training front-line staff, while the Comité provides advocacy training. All of the organizations interviewed in Quebec except the Comité reported that they distribute written materials to clients on poverty law and other matters.
All of the organizations interviewed in Quebec refer clients to other resources as appropriate to their needs. The organizations to which referrals are made mentioned by respondents include other community organizations, legal aid, the ombudsman, government offices, food banks, and private bar lawyers. All of the organizations noted that legal aid and a variety of other community groups are key places for referrals.
The respondent from Services juridiques communautaires de Pointe-St-Charles et Petite Bourgogne noted that referrals to legal aid, in particular, are given to clients with problems in the immigration and criminal law areas, since these are issues not covered by the organization. Action-Chômage reported that staff have worked jointly with legal aid to prepare and distribute information on the preparation of medical certificates (e.g., for disability applications). The Comité des personnes assistées sociales refers clients to legal aid for housing and family law issues. The Comité is also the only group that reported referring clients to private bar lawyers.
Preparation of legal aid applications
Four respondents reported that their organizations will assist people with the completion of legal aid applications: Services juridiques communautaires, Action-Chômage, Association pour la défense des droits sociaux, and the head office of ADQR. Interestingly, the regional ADQR respondent noted that this office does not assist with legal aid application preparation, along with Regroupement de défense des droits sociaux and the Comité des personnes assistées sociales.
All of the organizations interviewed in Quebec provide some kind of general and/or legal advice and assistance to their clients. Regroupement de défense des droits sociaux principally offers only general advice in the forms of information and materials; staff provide legal advice only occasionally, and primarily on issues in the income assistance area. Similarly, Action-Chômage will answer client questions and provide information about the law. Staff at this organization characterize their work as the provision of legal advice insofar as they strive to give people the tools they need to get through the legal process and prepare for their case.
The Association pour la défense des droits sociaux provides assistance with filling out forms, as well as reviewing already completed forms and other documents and suggesting revisions if necessary. The Comité des personnes assistées sociales also assists people with forms, as well as providing information and answering questions. The respondent from this group noted that staff also occasionally assist clients to access information in their file and/or claim by contacting an office or worker on the client's behalf. ADQR respondents reported that information provision is the primary kind of assistance they offer, including advice on legislation and legal rights and responsibilities. One ADQR respondent noted that this is a key function because educating people enables them to "take charge of their own situation." Some branches of ADQR will assist clients with the completion of forms, although no legal advice is offered in the sense of directing a client on a particular course of action.
Services juridiques communautaires provides information and assistance on various legal issues, including poverty law. Clients may be provided with information on an individual basis, with the goal of giving them the tools to deal with an issue themselves. Legal advice and opinions are also provided by Services juridiques communautaires staff to people who have been found ineligible for legal aid.
Four organizations interviewed in Quebec provide advocacy services in the poverty law area. Services juridiques communautaires noted that staff lawyers provide representation in court, although the same eligibility criteria that apply to legal aid also apply to their services. According to the respondent, this is a restriction imposed by their funding structure. Action-Chômage staff regularly appear at Employment Insurance tribunals and will also assist clients in preparing for these proceedings through rehearsals and other activities. However, the respondent from this organization estimated that, in 75 percent of cases, staff are successful at resolving an issue before it gets to the point of a tribunal or hearing. The regional ADQR office representative noted that staff will act as advocates for housing matters, although the head office respondent reported that there are no advocacy services available through this office. The Comité des personnes assistées sociales regularly provides advocacy in income assistance matters.
The Association pour la défense des droits sociaux, Regroupement de défense des droits sociaux and the head office of ADQR do not provide advocacy services.
The following data was provided by two of the organizations interviewed in Quebec concerning their poverty law services.
|Poverty Law Issue||Total Number of Clients Receiving Assistance*|
|Public Legal Education #||750|
|Preparation of Legal Aid Applications||524|
Source: Data collection charts for Quebec.
A respondent from a third organization estimated that this group receives 30 to 50 calls per day (predominantly on issues relating to employment). Callers typically receive either general advice/information or legal advice.
One of the two organizations from which data was collected estimated that 35 percent of the organization's overall work is in the poverty law area, with 5 percent in the consumer law area (including, among other things, debtor/creditor issues and utility/service disconnections). Of its poverty law work, approximately 53 percent pertains to QPP/OAS issues, and approximately 47 percent pertains to housing matters. Data from the other group indicates that the bulk of its work is in the areas of income assistance (48 percent of reported activities) and housing (20 percent of reported activities).
Only one organization provided data on the characteristics of its poverty law clients. In addition to the information below on sex and age, the respondent reported that some of the ethnic groups with which staff regularly work are Asian, Haitian, Greek, and Egyptian.
|Client Characteristic||Percent of All Clients|
|55 and over||90|
Source: Data collection charts for Quebec.
Types of poverty law issues
For the purposes of this section, the two ADQR offices interviewed have been counted as separate organizations, as the services offered by each office vary.
Employment Insurance (EI)
One organization works primarily in the EI area, with the respondent noting that it handles many cases in which people are determined ineligible for benefits because of a lack of work hours. Five other organizations also provide assistance in EI matters, although only two noted that this is an area in which they regularly receive inquiries and provide information. Respondents from the other three groups noted that staff occasionally provide some limited assistance, but are more likely to refer clients elsewhere. One organization does not offer any assistance in EI.
Quebec Pension Plan/Old Age Security (QPP/OAS)
Four organizations provide regular assistance with QPP/OAS issues. One group reported that QPP/OAS is a primary area of focus, although the services provided do not extend to lay advocacy or representation. A second organization provides assistance with applications and the completion of forms, while a third characterized the service it provides as “reference assistance” (answering questions, information, referrals). The fourth organization offers services that range from general information and advice to representation.
Of the remaining three agencies, one may occasionally provide assistance with QPP/OAS issues if staff have the relevant knowledge, but it is more likely that clients are referred to other resources; one provides some services, but the respondent noted that this is not an area in which they receive many inquiries; and one offers no services in this area.
Income assistance (IA)
Five organizations provide assistance with IA issues, with two of these groups characterizing IA as their primary area of service. Two of the five organizations offer services that range from general information and advice to advocacy/representation. The other three groups tend to offer basic assistance (information, referrals), as well as some assistance with forms. Of the remaining two agencies, one may occasionally assist with IA matters, and one offers no services in this area.
Housing and landlord/tenant
Four organizations regularly offer assistance with housing and landlord/tenant issues, with one group characterizing this as an area in which it does a lot of work, ranging from information provision to representation. One other group provides advocacy in housing issues, while the other two focus their services on delivering information and general advice to clients.
Two organizations occasionally provide assistance in housing issues, although both reported that this is not a significant area of work. One of these groups noted that clients are more likely to be referred elsewhere for assistance in this area. The final agency does not offer any assistance in housing or landlord/tenant issues.
Workers’ Compensation (WCB)
Two organizations offer regular assistance in WCB issues, one offering only information and one providing services ranging from information to representation. Two other organizations may occasionally assist with WCB cases if staff have the relevant knowledge, but this is not a primary focus and clients are often referred elsewhere. The remaining three agencies do not offer any services in this area.
Two organizations offer regular assistance in debtor/creditor issues, one offering only information and one providing services ranging from information to representation. One additional group may provide some services, but this is not a primary area of work for staff. The remaining four organizations do not do any work in the debtor/creditor area.
Staffing and funding information
Types of staff
Two organizations interviewed in Quebec employ lawyers or other staff with legal training. For one of these organizations, there is no requirement that the relevant position(s) be filled by a lawyer (although currently this is the case). The respondent from this agency did indicate certain advantages to having staff with legal training, notably that the same staff person can handle a case through all possible stages, including advocacy/representation. For the two organizations that have legal staff, other employees include community workers and administrative staff (receptionist, accountant). A respondent from a third organization noted that it would like to hire someone with legal training, but that it is difficult to find someone willing to work for the available remuneration.
The remaining five organizations have quite varied staff members. Two have directors, two have advocates/co-ordinators, one has a community worker, and one has administrative staff. Four organizations rely on volunteers for administrative work, for direct client services, and to fill the positions of president and treasurer. One organization is entirely staffed by volunteers.
Five of the six organizations with paid staff have five or fewer paid employees.
Sources of funding
Three organizations were unwilling to provide a great deal of information about their funding structure. One respondent would not offer any information about funding. A second respondent would not reveal sources of funding, but noted that this group’s historically stable financial support may be compromised in the future, due to some changes that are on the horizon. The third representative did comment that the Régie régionale de la santé et des services sociaux provides some funding, but would not comment on the stability of this support.
The remaining four organizations receive funding from a wide range of sources. One group has long-term support from legal aid (its largest funder), and from the provincial Ministry of Justice (for legal education work). The respondent from this group noted that, without having funding through the legal aid network, it would be facing a great deal more uncertainty. For many other organizations, restrictions on funding for advocacy work are a source of financial instability.
A second organization has received most of its long-term financial support from religious communities, followed by the United Way and unions. More recently, the provincial government ministry responsible for employment has provided some funding for community programs. The respondent from this agency reported that funding is always unstable - it is “a real problem” that has had a negative impact on the range of services delivered by this organization.
A third organization also receives funding from the provincial government through the Department of Social Services, Ministry of Education, and the ministry responsible for Immigration. The only other sources of financial support for this group are membership fees and some project-based support through the Office for Disabled Persons. The respondent from this group described funding as stable, but insufficient.
The fourth organization is funded by the Régie Régionale de la santé et des services sociaux de Montréal-Centre, a provincial government body under the Ministry of Health. In addition to this money, a limited amount of support is delivered through membership fees and donations. Overall, this group characterized its funding as limited - although the recurring amount is stable, it is too small. A respondent noted that staff are currently trying to access other funding 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 key gaps within the current system for delivering poverty law services in Quebec. One organization was unwilling to answer questions about its impressions of the poverty law system in Quebec, and two others were reluctant to discuss these questions in detail.
Lack of funding
Three respondents highlighted insufficient funding for poverty law services as a key problem area in Quebec, leading to gaps in available services. For some matters, there is simply no help available, regardless of the demand. One area noted particularly by two respondents is OAS. According to them, there are no organizations that specifically provide assistance in this area, so people are forced to deal with public servants and government bureaucracy. One group also reported that the lack of funding makes it is difficult to find people with legal training who are willing to work for the wages available in the poverty law/advocacy area, while a second agency suggested that it is becoming more difficult to recruit volunteers to assist in service provision.
Available legal services
Two respondents also pointed out that people who have been denied legal aid coverage have very few avenues through which to receive assistance. This is particularly the case in certain regions, given that service availability is inconsistent across the province. When people are unable to access even information or advice about the law and their legal situation, they are not able to effectively defend their rights. According to one representative, care needs to be taken to ensure that both legal aid and available popular legal educational materials are accessible to the general public.
Individualized, community-based approach to services
Two respondents commented that the way in which their organizations provide clients with individualized assistance is a successful feature of their service delivery model. Clients appreciate the fact that they can access services immediately, that there is little bureaucracy, and that services are personalized. In addition, the location of services within the community provides people with a sense of belonging and support, which is particularly important in economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
Public legal education
One respondent noted that, while providing services to respond to the immediate needs of low-income people is important, the education and information that organization staff deliver are also appreciated by members of the community. The experience of organization staff is that people like to have an opportunity to educate themselves about the law, and their rights under it, to better understand their situation and the available options. In this sense, the respondent suggested that the work of community organizations can improve quality of life.
Success in handling cases
A respondent from one organization noted that this group has been around for a long time and that staff, accordingly, “know the ropes.” As a result, they tend to win approximately 80 percent of tribunal cases, and have connections with public servants that serve staff (and by proxy, clients) well.
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