By Ian Mulgrew for The Vancouver Sun
New data from Legal Aid B.C. suggests the pandemic has caused more legal problems for the poor but also the realization that they need more holistic help.
Civil legal aid clients in B.C. said that those trying to help them should explain things more, talk to them in a language they can understand, and recognize all the complications and challenges in their lives.
“I don’t think the justice system responds well to those needs at all,” acknowledged Mark Benton, CEO of the non-profit agency.
“I think the disciplines associated with justice — judging and lawyering — tend to refine the problem to become a legal problem rather than looking at the individual and where that problem sits in the broader array of their social circumstance. Which is a sort of university-level way of saying, if we are really going to focus on helping people to resolve their problems you really need to focus on the people as well as the problem — not just the problem.”
Benton said that disconnect and alienation are a major reason only small numbers of the needy go to the justice system for a solution: They go elsewhere first.
Only one in four sought legal or non-legal assistance. A third resolved the problem on their own. The rest procrastinated.
“Historically, talking to your brother-in-law, some other family member or a friend are by far most common,” Benton said.
The top reasons for not acting were not knowing what to do, believing it would be too stressful and thinking nothing could be done.
Of the agency’s roughly $105 million annual budget, about $30 million is spent on family, child protection, indigenous, immigration and refugee issues.
In 2019, justice department figures indicate some 13,000 people applied for civil legal aid and about 8,000 received it.
Legal Aid has historicallyconducted studies every five years to better understand the types of problems the poor face and the help they need, but the pandemic prompted a much earlier look.
Of the respondents, 15 per cent attributed their legal problems directly to COVID-19, while about 20 per cent said the public health emergency made it worse.
The findings of the Everyday Legal Needs Survey and the coincidental report on community perspectives on legal aid — a project that included in-person focus groups, online discussion boards and in-depth interviews with clients and intermediaries, involving about 260 people — are not surprising in some ways.
More of the 1,200 people surveyed had legal problems this year (83 per cent) than respondents in 2018 (76 per cent).
But other data points were fascinating: It’s not more lawyers that would appear to be needed, but people who care and multidisciplinary support.
The top five legal problems were: consumer, employment, debt, housing and discrimination issues.Family law issues ranked 7th.
Most people needing legal aid faced numerous, interconnected woes tied directly to their legal issue. Worsening mental health and addiction problems were prevalent.
It was clear services needed to be adapted — community workers need to be trained to provide more guidance and to be culturally competent.
But transportation, available hours for service, intake processes, the availability of interpreters, and the emotional state of traumatized clients were all complicating factors.
Intermediaries and community agencies thought Legal Aid should play a greater role in helping them address these issues, but there was no consensus as to what that role should look like.
More one-on-one help for navigating the justice system so clients can access needed services quickly and ‘red-tape’ minimized, was one suggestion.
More training for Legal Aid staff and lawyers so that they can better recognize and identify issues and direct clients to the appropriate services was another.
Among clients, having broader Legal Aid help drew mixed reactions.
Some were supportive — particularly for help dealing with housing and employment. Others didn’t want them more involved in their lives.
“These surveys really help — we don’t have many ways of know what people would like or what people’s experience is during this time with their legal problems,” Benton explained.
“This is about what people say they need from the system. I’ve only just had this for a week and only just started to digest what some of the contents are. My biggest take-away was more research is needed. The data really helped us see that this isn’t necessarily about more lawyers, it’s about more interaction with the people with the problems.
“It’s my hope that paying attention to how people experience problems will help inform how to build a better court system and a better justice system, not just a better legal aid that recognizes solving the legal problems is part of the overall assistance that a person needs.”
Benton said Legal Aid was planning to do an online presentation of the data for a wide array of key people and organizations — pro bono providers, advocacy groups, lawyer organizations, the judiciary and others.