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Legal Secondary Consultation is a Valuable Addition to the Services Available from Three Community Legal Clinics in Southwest Ontario

By Ab Currie
Senior Research Fellow
Canadian Forum on Civil Justice

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Between April and October of 2016, three community legal clinics put in place legal secondary consultation (LSC) on a pilot project basis. The clinics are Halton Community Legal Services, the Community Legal Clinic of Brant, Haldimand and Norfolk and the legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County. The pilot projects were a success in each of the clinics (Ab Currie, Legal Secondary Consultation: How Legal Aid Can Support Communities and Expand Access to Justice, Halton Community Legal Services, Halton Community Legal Services, March 2018).

Legal secondary consultation is a service in which a lawyer, paralegal or community legal worker provides legal information or advice on request to service providers in service agencies or voluntary associations in the community. The idea was borrowed from Australia where secondary consultation was originally developed in a medical-legal partnership. A significant difference in the three-clinic Canadian experience is that LSC is provided to a wide variety of community organizations, some with professional and some with volunteer service providers.

The LSC project has been a very valuable support to community organizations. During the approximately seven-month period covered by the review, the three clinics received 235 requests for consultations from 103 different community organizations. Service providers from community agencies requesting the LSC service were virtually unanimous in their opinion that legal secondary consultation was extremely helpful in dealing with the issues for which they requested help, enabling them to better serve their own clients. Service providers also indicated that the assistance from LSC advisors often built organizational capacity enabling them to deal with similar situations better.

The types of organizations making requests for consultations varied from one clinic to the next, but, overall, mainly included community health centres, mental health services, food banks, family counselling agencies, organizations providing housing assistance and social services agencies. The types of problems for which consultations were requested were mainly in areas of housing and access to social services, together making up slightly more than 65% of all requests for all three clinics combined. These two main areas were followed by wills and powers of attorney, family law and immigration as common problems for which consultations were requested. Service providers requested consultations for a variety of problems with potential legal implications within very diverse organizational mandates. However, LSC advisors indicated that the most common type of advice provided was legal advice related to individual problems. Strategic advice about how to deal with a problem followed as the second most frequent type of advice.

The LSC services expanded the number of people who received legal help by the clinics through the secondary mechanism of assisting other service providers. Only a few of the contacts resulted in the individual being referred to legal aid.  The service providers in community agencies felt that many of their clients would not have approached legal aid on their own and in some cases would not have followed up on a referral to legal aid made by the service provider.

According to LSC advisors, legal secondary consultation is a highly efficient way to provide assistance. Advice is provided to external service providers by e-mail or telephone. The typical amount of time spent on a consultation was about 20 minutes. In addition, because there is no intake process, LSC allows the clinic to provide assistance at very low cost.

LSC advisors were aware of the risk that service providers may not fully understand the advice provided and, as a consequence, might take inappropriate action in dealing directly with their clients. LSC advisors said they monitor the telephone conversations and e-mail exchanges with service providers to assess the degree to which service providers appear to understand the information being provided. According to LSC advisors, situations only occasionally occurred in which they suspected some possible misunderstanding by service providers. In these cases the LSC advisors said they always made a special effort to assure the information being conveyed was well understood.

All three clinics have continued to provide legal secondary consultation to community organizations after the experimental period, integrating into the LSC into their overall delivery approach. The evidence suggests that legal secondary consultation is an important form of outreach to the community and, on the return trip, an effective path to justice.