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Connecting Ottawa

Dawood Nasir

Monday, October 6, 2014

In December 2008, the Law Foundation of Ontario tasked Karen Cohl and George Thomson with the responsibility of finding durable solutions for individuals facing linguistic and rural barriers to accessing justice. In response to their findings, a pilot project funded by the Law Foundation and Connecting Ottawa was born.  I had the opportunity to intern with the organization this past winter. Having always thought of myself as a social justice law student, I naturally gravitated towards Connecting Ottawa for its simple but powerful mandate: to break down all linguistic barriers to accessing justice.

Armed with a firm (and somewhat naive) resolve to combat social injustice, I arrived to my first day of training with Natalie Drolet, senior counsel in charge of the day-to-day operations for the project.  I quickly discovered that my idea of social justice needed revamping. I had always thought of access to justice issues as being purely legal problems, to be solved by lawyers and law-makers alone. Connecting Ottawa changed my perception of this by introducing me to one of the most powerful access to justice tools: collaboration between legal and non-legal service providers.

Located at the Vanier Community Service Centre, and sharing facilities with the Francophone Legal Clinic of Ottawa East, Connecting Ottawa is a truly collaborative project. During my time there, I was able to observe the various partnerships that Connecting Ottawa has developed with legal clinics, community service organizations, and other trusted intermediaries. Being on the front lines of access to justice work meant that I was interacting directly with vulnerable clients in an effort to maximize the resources available to them.

My work most often involved brainstorming different organizations that might be able to assist individual clients, and then contacting those organizations to facilitate referrals. During my time with Connecting Ottawa, it was clear to me that one of the most important functions the organization serves is to help vulnerable people with legal problems navigate the complex maze of resources to find the ones most relevant to them.

That’s the short-term goal. The long-term goal is more difficult, and brings us back to the work of Karen Cohl and George Thomson. Their report to the Law Foundation of Ontario surveyed the deficiencies in the way that the current justice system was addressing barriers to access, and ways that it could improve. The most salient point that grew out of the report was the need for a fundamental paradigm shift in the way that we think of solutions to access to justice problems. The solution to the problem is, indeed, to think about the issues in a different way. The solution to the problem is building a system.

In Ontario now, there is some innovation and promising, isolated experiments to improve linguistic and rural access to justice. Apart from some notable exceptions in particular areas, however, there is no harmonized sense of direction, and no collective decision-making about areas of priority. — “Connecting Across Language & Distance” (2008), Cohl and Thomson.

Cohl and Thomson looked at the current system and saw a plethora of organizations, some legal and some non-legal, who were working independently to improve access to justice. These organizations often did not communicate with one another to ensure that they were not duplicating services, or to identify any gaps in the services that were being provided.  Cohl and Thomson also highlighted a schism between what were traditionally identified as legal service providers and non-legal service providers.

The old system was predicated on the idea that individual organizations should be designed to address problems in a narrow way. The old system also created a false dichotomy between legal and non-legal problems, without leaving room for intersection or convergence.

The old system ignored the fact that legal problems often come with non-legal problems, and vice versa. For example: a dispute with your spouse may bring with it emotional unrest as well as property and child custody disputes; a criminal law issue may bring with it issues of mental health and economic instability. It is not surprising that no one organization can resolve all of these problems. It is also not surprising that individual organizations addressing issues in isolation cannot contribute towards the solution when they do not communicate with one another.

Connecting Ottawa represents a much-needed paradigm shift in the way legal services are organized, facilitated, and operated. It offers a move away from isolationist policies, and a move towards providing a holistic solution to legal problems. We take a holistic approach and draw upon strengths that already exist within our network of over 40 community health, legal, immigration, disability, and social services agencies.

Connecting Ottawa re-imagines the solution to legal problems. Collaboration between legal and non-legal service providers is at the centre of all of the work that the organization undertakes. Building effective and long-lasting solutions to access to justice problems is about fostering connections in the community and building a fluid network of people and organizations which guide people through their legal dilemmas.

I was fortunate enough to have attended the 2nd Annual Connecting Ottawa Conference, where lawyers, community legal workers, settlement conference workers, policy makers, scholars and other members of the community came together to build connections and strengthen their network. Moving forward, I hope to see Connecting Ottawa continue to foster an interconnected community within Ottawa, and serve as a model for the change we so desperately need.

To find out more about Connecting Ottawa please visit www.connectingottawa.com or follow @connectingottawa on Twitter.