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Lives on Simmer! Early Intervention For People Living on the Margins

Ab Currie, PhD

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

This is the third post in a series following the developments of the Halton Community Legal Clinic’s Legal Health Check-Up Project. Previous posts can be found here and here. 
The Legal Health Check-Up Project developed by the Halton Community Legal Clinic has been running for about three months through the early phase of implementation, monitoring and course correction.  Project experience is a good teacher and the very early data and project experience is teaching the project team some interesting lessons. One of the main concepts underlying the Legal Health Check-Up Project was that the partnerships between the legal aid clinic and the intermediary groups would allow early intervention and the ability to prevent problems from becoming more complex and difficult to deal with.

These are early days and the data are very preliminary but here is some of the story the data are telling so far.  About half the people who requested follow-up by an intake worker at the Clinic and who have received a follow-up interview said a problem they were experiencing began within the previous two months. That is hopeful for being able to deal with problems early. Also, many clients experience multiple problems. About 40% of people who completed the Check-Up forms reported three or more problems. This is two to three times the percentage identified in legal problems surveys. Importantly, there is a very high correspondence between the clinically assessed legal problems at intake and the everyday legal problems identified on the Legal Health Check-Up forms. This tells us that the check-up form is a good tool for identifying unmet legal need.  As the project team pondered what the early data might be telling us we realized we had probably not framed the early intervention objective entirely correctly. The early thinking was not wrong but it had to be refined.

The need for early intervention is an idea that is based on the trigger and cascade effect that has emerged from the legal problems research. Legal problems trigger other legal problems. Legal problems trigger, and are triggered by, a range of non-legal problems. This presents a linear idea of problems occurring over time, suggesting that problems might be prevented or at least managed if they are identified and help provided early enough in the process. This concept is based on large-scale surveys of the public and may adequately characterize the way in which problem sequences emerge for members of the public generally. However, a linear trigger and cascade concept of experiencing legal problems may not be the best way to characterize the way the marginalized groups making up the population served by legal aid experience multiple problems. Rather than a linear concept, it may be that the lives of the poor are on a constant simmer of multiple inter-connected problems that occasionally erupt into crisis situations.

This early project experience suggests that extending the reach of legal aid may not prevent legal problems among the marginalized people making up the legal aid client base. Lives kept in a constant state of simmer by scarcity may not allow that to occur. However, extending the reach of legal aid by partnering with intermediary groups may increase the capacity of legal aid to prevent problems on a constant simmer from ‘boiling over’. Borrowing the metaphor made famous by Richard Susskind in The End of Lawyers, depicting the choice between the fence at the top of the cliff, or, the ambulance at the bottom, the poor are crowded close to the fence and relocating them very far up the path away from the fence is difficult. Legal aid may, however, be able to catch them before they tumble over the cliff.  That is a refinement of early intervention tailored more realistically to the lives of people living on the margins. Early indications are that the partnership between the Halton Legal Aid Clinic and trusted intermediaries who are closer to the lives of the poor can accomplish this objective. The Legal Health Check-Up is proving to be an effective tool in a proactive process where intermediaries can reach out and identify people with everyday legal problems and guide them towards the help they may need.