News: Department of Justice Releases Report on Legal Clinics in Canada During the Covid-19 Pandemic

By Calvin Ediger

Legal clinics provide an important avenue for access to justice initiatives across Canada. Recently the Department of Justice released a report studying the impacts of Covid-19 upon legal clinics across the country. The study focused mainly on clinics that provided services tied to federal jurisdiction, “criminal law, marriage and divorce, immigration and refugee matters, federal income support, insolvency”[1], though clinics that were involved with both federal and provincial matters were not left out.

The study found that most clinics operated under a so-called “juridical counter model.”[2] This model “primarily provides users with legal information and assistance with legal forms. These two services are intended to direct citizens to resources related to their needs and guide them in any next legal steps.”[3] Prior to the pandemic many of these services were delivered in person, causing legal clinics to adapt in response to Covid-19.

Clinics have risen to the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic through innovative problem-solving. Clinics have embraced online advertisement of services, assistance in e-filing and online applications, and video conferencing in an attempt to continue to offer services.[4] Although these changes help some clients, we cannot forget that these changes also create new barriers to access to justice as “the most vulnerable legal clinic clientele are often challenged in terms of technological access”[5]. Some clients lack access to computers or phones due to homelessness, discomfort with technology, lack of WIFI or data, and lack of privacy to deal with sensitive matters (such as in cases of domestic violence).[6]

In terms of areas of law where the most help is needed, the study found that family law, housing/rent, and poverty law issues were the largest areas of demand.[7] When reviewing user experience, , the authors found, when studying Alberta clinics, that “[a]lmost 80% of clients attended the clinic for 15 to 44 minutes. The first five issues (comprising 76% of the total) were divorce, spousal and child support, landlord/tenant, parenting after separation, custody/access, and immigration. The remaining 25% of issues included a range of criminal, civil, and family matters”.[8] The study found that users of legal clinics generally left satisfied, citing that “slightly over 90% said they “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that because of their clinic visit, they had a better understanding of their legal rights”.[9]

Legal clinics continue to face challenges. Stable and adequate funding continues to be an issue and, it appears, this has been further exacerbated throughout the course of the pandemic. During the pandemic, clinics “have usually been able to meet service needs [. . .] because of the closure of courts and reduced demand.”[10] At the same time due to social distancing “there has been an increased emphasis on hearings being conducted virtually [. . .] This results in increased demand for clinics to purchase technology, equipment, and space to effectively accommodate remote video hearings.”[11] Though overall there is a commitment to continue funding, “in many jurisdictions there is concern over continued ability to meet demands.”[12]

Another area for improvement is information gathering. It is noted that “clinics rarely measure outcomes in a highly developed way.”[13] Specifically three types of uncollected data were highlighted as being particularly useful. These are:

  1. housing: “for example, whether a client is homeless, his/her
    tenancy situation, and how he/she can be contacted”,[14]
  2. health information: “such as whether a client has a disability such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and whether he/she has a mental health condition”,[15]
  3. “other social/legal processes that the client is engaged with that could affect client
    outcomes in criminal and civil files, for example, success in applying for child support from social services if a spouse is refusing to pay support”.[16]

Such information is important as “[i]ncreased investment in clinic systems is likely to result in net financial benefits to government and communities because of savings that will result in other social service and health systems; however, this claim will remain hypothetical without support for the development of information management systems to capture client and community outcome data.”[17]

[1] Department of Justice Canada, Report, “Legal Clinics in Canada: Exploring Service Delivery and Legal Outcomes Among Vulnerable Populations in the Context of COVID-19” (November 2021) at page 7.

[2] Ibid, at page 11.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, at pages 20-21.

[5] Ibid, at page 21.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, at page 23.

[8] Ibid, at page 12.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, at page 4.

[11] Ibid, at page 20.

[12] Ibid, at page 4.

[13] Ibid, at page 5.

[14] Ibid, at page 22.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, at page 25.

The views and opinions expressed in the blogs are the views of their authors, and do not represent the views of the Faculty of Law, or the University of Manitoba. Academic Members of the University of Manitoba are entitled to academic freedom in the context of a respectful working and learning environment.

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