An Analysis of Poverty Law Services in Canada

Part Three: The national picture (continued)

Summary of community organization poverty law services

This section develops an overview of the services offered by community organizations in each of the provinces. In reviewing these summary comments, it is important to remember that the organizations interviewed for this project do not represent an exhaustive sample of the community groups involved in the provision of services in the poverty law area.

Types of community organization poverty law services

Public legal education

The most common public legal education activities provided by community organizations are workshops/information sessions and the provision/distribution of written materials. At least some of the agencies interviewed in each of the provinces deliver services in one or both of these areas, with the exception of New Brunswick, where neither group is engaged in educational activities. The range of topics covered by the organizations interviewed is quite broad, addressing both specific poverty law issues, like income assistance and Employment Insurance, and broader matters such as legal rights and responsibilities and overviews of legislative changes.

All of the organizations interviewed in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan provide pubic legal education in the form of both informational events and the distribution of materials. A respondent in Alberta noted the provision of information is a key function for community groups, insofar as it constitutes a way to give low-income people a connection to the justice system.

In the remaining provinces, many of the organizations interviewed provide some kind of public legal education service, although the type of service varies between groups. Four of the five organizations interviewed in Manitoba are primarily involved in the distribution of information, although two groups also offer occasional educational or speaking sessions and one organization also provides self-help training to clients. Similarly, four of the five organizations interviewed in Ontario distribute printed information and materials, while two regularly do public speaking engagements and organize workshops. In Quebec, five of seven agencies organize workshops and information sessions, and five distribute written materials to clients.

All three organizations interviewed in Nova Scotia provide written materials, and two groups organize educational activities such as workshops, information sessions, and presentations at public events. In Newfoundland, the mandate of the one agency interviewed is to assist people to understand the law and to make the legal system more accessible. To this end, the group is engaged in a comprehensive range of public legal education activities. Finally, all of the organizations interviewed in P.E.I. are involved in public legal education in some capacity, most commonly through the organization of workshops or other public information sessions, although two groups also have written materials available for distribution.


Referrals are a service provided by the vast majority of organizations interviewed in all of the provinces. Respondents from most agencies reported that clients tend to be referred to a wide range of additional community, regional or provincial resources, depending on their needs and the legal issue(s) involved. In addition, many respondents noted that referrals tend to be extended when the assistance required by a client is outside the range of services offered by the organization, or if the legal issue in question is beyond the expertise of staff.

In terms of available legal resources, community organizations in most provinces referred people to legal aid - in some cases even when there are few available poverty law legal aid services. For example, some respondents in both Saskatchewan and P.E.I. reported referring clients to legal aid, despite the fact that there is limited civil law coverage outside of the family area. Other legal resources mentioned for referrals by respondents in several provinces include pro bono legal services, lawyer referral services, private bar lawyers, and legal information organizations. The Community Legal Clinic network in Ontario was specifically highlighted by respondents from that province as a key resource to which to send poverty law clients. Legal aid was also mentioned by all organizations interviewed in B.C. and Quebec as an important poverty law resource.

Preparation of legal aid applications

The preparation of legal aid applications was the least common service provided by the organizations interviewed for this project across all provinces. No organizations in Manitoba, Ontario, Newfoundland or P.E.I. provide this service, and only one of the interviewed groups in B.C., Nova Scotia and New Brunswick offer this kind of assistance (although two groups in B.C. did note that they may assist people who have been denied legal aid coverage).

Quebec stands out as the province in which the most assistance with legal aid applications is provided by community organizations - four or the seven groups interviewed offering services in this area. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, two of the groups interviewed will assist people in preparing legal aid applications.


Respondents from organizations across Canada were uncomfortable with the notion that they provide advice in the sense of directing clients on a particular course of action. While a small number of organizations do have a program in place to offer advice in this sense, the majority of groups view their role as presenting information and options to clients to educate them about their situation and strategies for dealing with it. Clients are then empowered to make their own decisions about how to proceed. In light of this overarching theme, the kind of advice provided by the community organizations interviewed for this project tends to fall into two categories - the provision of general information and assistance, and the provision of procedural assistance. The majority of the organizations interviewed across the provinces provide general advice to clients on poverty law matters in the form of basic information, answering questions, and providing referrals. The availability of procedural assistance - including the completion of forms, making calls or writing letters on a client’s behalf, accompanying clients to meetings - is more varied.

All nine organizations interviewed in B.C. provide clients with general advice and assistance, and most groups also offer some kind of legal advice or procedural assistance. Five of the six organizations interviewed in Alberta provide general advice and procedural assistance in poverty law matters, while two of these groups also co-ordinate legal clinics through which clients can access additional assistance. Four of the six groups interviewed in Saskatchewan provide general advice to clients, while only two organizations explicitly stated that they provide procedural assistance. Advice is offered by all of the organizations interviewed in Manitoba, typically both general and procedural. The advice offered by four of the five agencies interviewed in Ontario is largely in the area of procedural assistance, as well as providing general information and referrals. All of the organizations interviewed in Quebec provide some kind of general and/or legal advice to their clients, although, for most groups, legal advice is limited to procedural assistance. Only one group provides direct legal advice and opinions.

Two of the three organizations interviewed in Nova Scotia provide advice to clients. One group offers only general assistance, while the other is similar to legal aid in its structure and operation, and, accordingly, provides both general and legal advice. Both organizations in New Brunswick provide general and legal advice to clients. One group relies on staff relationships with private bar lawyers to deliver legal advice, collecting information from them and relaying it to clients. The organization interviewed in Newfoundland focusses on information provision - respondents were reluctant to classify these activities as the provision of advice. The four organizations interviewed in P.E.I. provide a limited amount of advice, typically of a general nature, to clients on poverty law matters. Two groups in this province cited a lack of resources sufficient to deliver one-on-one services to clients.


The advocacy services offered by community organizations in the poverty law area are more limited than the advisory services available. Among the agencies interviewed, some advocacy services are available in poverty law matters in all of the provinces except Newfoundland. The topics in which community organizations provide advocacy vary, often depending on the focus of the organization in question.

All nine organizations interviewed in B.C. provide advocacy services in poverty law issues, with the most common areas being income assistance and housing. Three groups in Alberta offer lay advocacy services in poverty law matters, with common issues again being income assistance and housing. Four of the six organizations interviewed in Saskatchewan will act as client advocates in formal proceedings, although one noted that this is a very rare activity. The advocacy services of one group are targeted to Employment Insurance matters, while another group focusses primarily on income assistance.

Four organizations interviewed in Manitoba reported that they may provide advocacy services, although only two noted that this is an area in which services are regularly offered. One of these two groups primarily provides lay advocacy services in Employment Insurance matters, while the other focusses on income assistance. Three organizations interviewed in Ontario provide lay advocacy at tribunals and hearings. One organization works specifically on EI, the second focusses largely on income assistance, and the third works in a variety of areas. One organization that does not offer advocacy services noted that there is no need for further community resources in this area, given the activities and expertise of Community Legal Clinics. Four organizations interviewed in Quebec provide advocacy services for poverty law matters. One organization imposes the same eligibility requirements as legal aid for this service, and provides advocacy services for a range of issues. Of the remaining three groups, one works predominantly on Employment Insurance issues, one on housing matters, and one on income assistance.

Only one organization interviewed in Nova Scotia provides advocacy services for poverty law matters. This organization operates in a manner similar to legal aid, extending services to clients in a variety of issues (although the primary area is income assistance). Both organizations interviewed in New Brunswick provide advocacy or legal representation in various poverty law issues. One group focusses specifically in EI, CPP, and WCB matters. Only one of the four organizations interviewed in P.E.I. provides any advocacy, and this is a very limited component of its services.

Types of poverty law issues

Employment Insurance (EI)

EI is not a primary issue dealt with by the community organizations interviewed for this project. In each of the provinces, only a small proportion of agencies provide assistance in EI matters, and most of the assistance that is provided is limited to the provision of general information and answering clients’ questions. The number of organizations that provide advocacy services - assisting clients with appeals of EI benefit denials and other similar matters - is quite limited. In each of Saskatchewan, Quebec and Ontario, there is one organization that focusses primarily on delivering assistance in EI.

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

CPP/QPP/OAS matters are dealt with by the community organizations interviewed somewhat more frequently than EI matters, probably due at least in part to the disability benefits that are a part of the CPP/QPP programs. More organizations deliver a full range of services in CPP/QPP/OAS matters, including not only the provision of general and procedural advice and assistance, but also lay advocacy at formal proceedings. However, general information is still the most common service provided in most jurisdictions.

Respondents in Manitoba, Newfoundland and P.E.I. reported that CPP/OAS is not an issue on which many inquiries or requests for assistance are received. Accordingly, the services available in this area are quite limited in these provinces. Among the five organizations interviewed in Manitoba, none offer advocacy services. The only organization interviewed in Newfoundland may provide information on CPP/OAS issues, but this is not a common area of work. Respondents from P.E.I. noted that the only activity around CPP/OAS matters is public legal education - there are no direct client services offered.

Income assistance (IA)

IA is one of the issues most commonly dealt with by the organizations interviewed in all of the provinces. It is also an area in which community groups are most likely to offer a wide range of services, including general and legal advice and advocacy.

All of the organizations interviewed in B.C. identified IA as a primary area of work, and two groups reported specific expertise in dealing with applications for disability benefits and associated issues. All six agencies in Alberta provide assistance with IA matters, although only three reported offering services beyond the provision of general advice. In Saskatchewan, one of the six groups interviewed identified IA as its principal area of work, although a second group also provides assistance in this area. IA is also a primary type of problem for three of the five organizations interviewed in Manitoba and Ontario.

Five groups interviewed in Quebec provide assistance with IA, and two characterized this as their main area of work. IA is a primary issue for two groups in Nova Scotia, although only one provides a full range of services, including advocacy. One organization in New Brunswick provides advocacy services in IA matters, and three of the four groups interviewed in P.E.I. work in this area. The legal information organization interviewed in Newfoundland provides assistance with a wide range of legal issues, of which IA is one.

Housing and landlord/tenant

After income assistance, housing and landlord/tenant matters make up the largest area of work for the poverty law organizations interviewed for this project. Six organizations in B.C. noted that they regularly provide services in this area, and that it is a significant part of the work they do. In Alberta, housing is an area in which organizations provide the most services, with five of six groups providing a wide range of assistance. Two Saskatchewan agencies provide advice and advocacy in housing matters, as does one group in Manitoba (although three others there offer more limited services).

As with IA, three of the five organizations in Ontario frequently deal with housing and landlord/tenant issues. Assistance ranges from the provision of basic information and general advice to procedural assistance and lay advocacy. In Quebec, four of the seven organizations interviewed regularly offer assistance with housing and landlord/tenant issues, with two of these providing advocacy at tribunals. Housing is a primary issue for two groups in Nova Scotia (although only one provides advocacy services), while the third organization offers information and basic assistance in this area. One New Brunswick agency provides a full range of services in housing matters. The legal information organization interviewed in Newfoundland provides assistance with a wide range of legal issues, of which housing is one.

P.E.I. is the only province in which none of the organizations interviewed offers significant services in the housing and landlord/tenant areas. Three groups tend to offer only referrals on such matters, while the fourth provides no assistance.

Workers’ Compensation (WCB)

Workers’ compensation is an issue in which only limited services are offered by community organizations. Some respondents suggested that they do not extend services in this area because matters are handled internally by the WCB system, or because there are other resources available to assist with claims in this area. The most common form of assistance offered by the groups interviewed in all jurisdictions is general information and assistance, although, in most jurisdictions, at least one agency also offers procedural assistance or advocacy. Respondents in Ontario and P.E.I. reported that assistance is provided in workers’ compensation matters only very occasionally, because no organization has an established program or service stream in this area.


Debtor/creditor is the area in which the least assistance is offered by the community organizations interviewed for this project. Only a small number of groups provide any services in such matters, and, among those that do extend services, assistance tends to be limited to basic information. None of the organizations interviewed in Alberta and Saskatchewan offer any services in debtor/creditor matters, and only one group in each of Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick and P.E.I. provides information. The only province in which advocacy services are offered in debtor/creditor matters is Quebec, and these are provided by only one of the three groups providing assistance in this area.

Staffing and funding information

Types of staff

The organizations interviewed for this project tend to use several different characterizations to describe their workers. The most common of these is “advocates,” with “lay advocates” or “peer advocates” sometimes used. This classification was reported by respondents from at least some organizations in all jurisdictions except New Brunswick and Newfoundland. In B.C., all nine organizations describe their staff as advocates. Other common descriptors used by agencies for their staff are “community workers,” “outreach workers,” “general/administrative staff,” and “information providers.”

The majority of staff members in the organizations interviewed tend not to have legal training, whether as lawyers or paralegals. Agencies interviewed in Manitoba, Ontario and P.E.I. do not have any staff with legal training. B.C., Quebec and Nova Scotia are the only jurisdictions that employ legal paraprofessionals (paralegals, community legal workers) or other staff with legal training who are not qualified lawyers. In most cases, the organizations that do employ lawyers tend to have only one or two such individuals on staff. In some cases, legal supervision of the work of other staff members is a requirement of the funding received.

Volunteers feature heavily in the staffs of the organizations interviewed in most jurisdictions, with the exception of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Several jurisdiction report having organizations that are staffed entirely by volunteers, and many organizations rely on volunteers to deliver direct client services or for administrative work. Students also are used by organizations in the majority of provinces.

Sources of funding

Sources of funding for the organizations interviewed for this project are quite varied. As a result, it is difficult to draw any general conclusions about the funding situation of these groups. Provincial governments are the most common source of financial support - although this is also a source reported by many groups to be unstable. Federal and municipal governments are also sources of funding for some organizations. In addition to government support, the United Way and provincial law foundations and/or law societies are common funding sources for quite a few of the groups interviewed. These sources of funding tended to be viewed overall as more stable than government (and especially provincial government) sources.

A number of smaller funding sources were identified by organizations in addition to those mentioned above. These include churches, local businesses, donations (money and in-kind), legal aid, membership fees, casinos and gaming, private foundations, health and mental health groups, fundraising campaigns, universities, private individuals, unions, and other labour organizations.

Strengths and challenges of available poverty law services

The following discussion summarizes the comments made by community organization respondents concerning what is working well and what is not working well within the poverty law system in their jurisdictions.

Problem areas
Lack of funding

A problem area in the delivery of poverty law services, mentioned by community organization representatives in all jurisdictions, is the lack of funding available. In B.C., respondents noted that existing limitations in funding levels will be exacerbated by the cuts recently imposed by the provincial government, increasing the risk of division among groups as they compete for available financial support. According to community organizations in Alberta, the overall lack of funding for poverty law means that groups must target their services to a narrow range of issues, and rely on volunteers to assist in service delivery. Respondents from both Saskatchewan and Quebec also reported that insufficient funding results in increased use of volunteers, as well as lengthening the waiting time for clients in need of assistance, and increasing gaps in available services. Representatives from Quebec further noted that limited funding makes it difficult to find persons with legal training, because few are willing to work at the low level of remuneration available in the poverty law field. In Manitoba, respondents simply highlighted the overall lack of funding available for poverty law work.

Respondents from Nova Scotia and P.E.I. pointed to funding limitations as a key reason why poverty law services have not been expanded in these provinces, while organization representatives in New Brunswick suggested that low levels of financial support create instability in the poverty law system. In Ontario, respondents reported that community groups are trying to fill the gaps left by legal aid in the poverty law system, but, in the absence of sufficient financial support, they are unable to meet all needs. Finally, Newfoundland respondents suggested that having only limited funding available for poverty law work restricts efforts to provide services for the poor in rural, as well as in urban areas.

Lack of poverty law services

Respondents from most jurisdictions pointed to an overarching lack of poverty law services as a problem area for the poverty law system in their respective provinces. According to community groups in Alberta and Nova Scotia, the absence of sufficient poverty law services means that people tend to “fall through the cracks,” particularly given that community organizations are not able to offer enough services to meet all needs. Respondents in New Brunswick and Newfoundland highlighted the lack of legal representation as a particular gap in available services, while P.E.I. community groups pointed to an overall lack of options for legal assistance. In Manitoba, community group representatives suggested that there are too few services available to low-income people, and too few training opportunities for the advocates providing these services. Quebec representatives noted that people denied legal aid coverage have very few places to turn for assistance, a problem complicated by regional variations in the availability of services at the community level.

Strengths and challenges of available poverty law services

Problem areas
Legal aid coverage

Community organization respondents in B.C., Alberta and Nova Scotia all noted that legal aid needs to provide more comprehensive poverty law coverage. In B.C., representatives noted that recent changes to legal aid will have a significant impact in this area, further limiting the range of poverty law issues in which people can receive assistance. Community groups in Ontario noted that Community Legal Clinics are confronting an increasing demand for legal assistance, without any corresponding increase in funding, with the result being a narrowing of the range of issues covered. In Saskatchewan and P.E.I., respondents noted that the complete absence of poverty law legal aid coverage is a key weakness.

Funding cuts

All community organizations interviewed in B.C. expressed major concerns about the impact of the legal aid changes being implemented by the Liberal government. Respondents in Saskatchewan also suggested that this province is in a “cycle of cutbacks,” with the result being that “nothing is working well” in the poverty law system. According to these respondents, services for low-income people are less likely to be supported in times of fiscal restraint.

Other problem areas

Respondents in Manitoba noted that there is an overall lack of community and legal services available for Aboriginal peoples in the province. Community organizations interviewed in P.E.I. highlighted several issues that they consider to be barriers to the development of an effective poverty law system there, notably: limited public transportation, difficulties in distributing services across rural and urban areas, high levels of illiteracy, and the lack of toll-free lines for government offices.

Success stories
Individualized approach of community groups

Several respondents said a positive feature of the poverty law system is the individual attention that community organizations are able to give to their clients. Alberta respondents noted that this kind of approach permits community group staff to effectively assess a person’s needs and determine how best to deliver support. For representatives in Quebec, personalized support means that there is little bureaucracy with which clients must deal, and that services can remain rooted in the community. Finally, respondents in Nova Scotia suggested that a one-on-one approach is particularly effective in the poverty law area.

Public legal education

Respondents in Saskatchewan noted that the availability of public legal education materials on poverty law matters is a valuable component of the poverty law system, particularly given the large rural population in this province. Quebec representatives also noted that education is a key activity, inasmuch as knowledge empowers people by informing them about their situation and available options.

Service delivery models

A wide range of comments were made by community organization respondents concerning various features of the service delivery models in place in their respective provinces. Respondents from B.C. suggested that the community services available in the poverty law area are effectively providing people with immediate assistance in several areas, and that the lived experience of staff with poverty law issues is an asset in this regard. B.C. representatives also suggested that the poverty law legal aid system had been functioning fairly well prior to the cuts currently being implemented, in terms of both available coverage and services. Manitoba respondents commented on the dedication of poverty law advocates working in their province. Similarly, some respondents in Quebec felt that the long-standing experience of some community groups in the poverty law area yielded better services for clients. Finally, respondents in Ontario noted that the province’s Community Legal Clinic network is a valuable resource that has increased low-income people’s ability to access justice services. The expertise of CLC staff in the poverty law area underline the success of this approach.

Other success stories

Community organization respondents in B.C. said that the support of the Law Foundation for poverty law advocacy services should be recognized as a positive feature of the existing system. In Saskatchewan, the availability of mediation and conflict resolution services in the landlord/tenant area was cited as a positive development.

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