The wizards of Oz: learnings from Australia

Michele Leering, Executive Director of CALC

Guest author Michele Leering, Executive Director of CALC

In March 2014, I had an amazing series of visits with a very enthusiastic group of employees of Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) – the equivalent of Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) – in the Australian state of Victoria. I cannot tell you how liberating and refreshing it was to meet with others who genuinely care about how to increase access to justice without each of us wearing the historical acrimonious relationships that can constrain dialogue between funders and fundees.

One of the first places I was taken to visit was the VLA library which is, surprisingly, open to the public – how cool is that? Unfortunately, it is still cause for debate in Ontario about whether all of our courthouse libraries should be available to the public. My community legal clinic (CLC) has identified public librarians as oft-overlooked “trusted intermediaries” who provide key legal access points in all communities. Moreover, public librarians can provide, if trained and supported, a significant point of access to justice resources in rural and remote communities that often have few other services, function as community hubs, and are an important internet access location.

Back in Ontario, my CLC has been working closely with our main courthouse librarian. She became very involved with a special Access to Justice project we created with our public libraries, who serve large rural and remote populations. (CLEO was an important partner on this too!) However, allowing public access to courthouse libraries remains a highly vexed issue for local law associations. One of the fears appears to be the anticipated deluge of self-represented litigants looking for more than just information – so, I noted with interest that the VLA library was very quiet, at least when I visited!

Opening the VLA library to the general public is one of many ways in which the VLA makes clear its commitment to preventative services. Although this is also seen as important here in Ontario, this has caused some tensions with CLCs. Duplication and overlap is now a cause for concern. In my view, this simply highlights the need to plan collaboratively and strategically for service delivery – this appears to be an ongoing challenge for all of us, but the VLA is taking concrete and systemic steps to address this.

Building on the strengths, input and contributions of Australian community legal centres, the VLA has identified “preventative services” as including targeted PLE activities. Some examples:

  • e-learning tools for young people with mild intellectual disabilities
  • a “Sex, young people, and the law” intervention project developed in collaboration with one community legal centre – it’s since been rolled out across the entire state
  • ESL language teacher kits for newcomers developed with input from community legal centres

In addition to these initiatives, the VLA also conducts numerous public legal education and information (PLE) sessions and trains both legal and non-legal staff to use PLE tools.

They seem to be making great strides in their focus on preventative services and in training and enabling trusted intermediaries to deliver PLE. This is due in part to their employing a very dynamic Community Legal Education Manager and having good working relationships with their service partners – the 50 community legal centres across the state. I look forward to sharing some information about my visit with her in my next guest blog post.

Michele Leering is a lawyer and works as Executive Director with the Community Advocacy & Legal Centre in Belleville, Ontario. She also holds a M.A. in Adult Education. In addition to the traditional practice of poverty law, Michele has engaged in community development and law reform work, including organizing injured workers, and instigating participatory action research projects into local hunger/poverty, homelessness, and access to justice.  She has worked on diverse public legal education projects including developing a comprehensive guide to living on a low income, referral and resource guides, and “legal health checklist” approaches that reflect her passion for encouraging legal literacy/capability appraoches and holistic legal aid service delivery. She is currently working on an article about the crucial role that “trusted intermediaries” play in increasing access to justice.

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