Justice Champions of Change in the Coronavirus Era

The Canadian poverty law clinic that kept putting people first during a pandemic


The coronavirus pandemic has triggered economic as well as health setbacks. Even in countries as wealthy as Canada, many more people will be at risk of poverty — and of the vulnerability to justice problems that poverty brings with it.

The Community Advocacy & Legal Centre (CALC) is a non-profit legal clinic that helps people living on a low income in three counties in Ontario, Canada to address their legal problems. It provides people-centered legal, advocacy and information services to those living near or below the poverty line, as well as empowering them to know and understand the law so that they might be better placed to solve their own problems.

In the first of our Champions of Change interviews to focus on the effects of the pandemic, Maaike de Langen talked to CALC’s Executive Director and Lawyer Michele Leering to find out how the virus has affected CALC and how the organization is responding to it.

Michele Leering

Maaike: How did the pandemic impact your organization, the Community Advocacy & Legal Centre?

Michele: We were of course aware of the pandemic but the implications came on us very suddenly in the middle of March. We had just wrapped up a regional planning day on a Friday with colleagues when all hell broke loose. By Monday morning we realized, “We’re going to have to shut the clinic down.” Having people visit us in person was no longer an option. Staff needed to start to work remotely. We had about three days for the turnaround, so we had to think about equipment and supplies to take home, what to do about our clients, health-compromised staff, new callers, hearings, client confidentiality, voice and e-mail messages, IT security, and increasing office sanitation… an endless list of all sorts of practical things.

Maaike: Can you tell me a little more about your organization?

Michele: We are a community-based justice organization, one of 72 community legal clinics in Ontario. We are funded largely by Legal Aid Ontario, which receives the majority of its funding from the provincial government. We serve a three-county geographic area in south-eastern Ontario, and we provide what we call poverty law services.

Poverty law services describes both the issues we help with and the ways we offer help. The legal issues we deal with help clients to keep food on the table, have a roof over their head, ensure safety and security at work, protect human rights, consumer justice — their basic needs really. And the ways we offer services are through traditional individual client work, answering people’s questions on the phone or in person, and representing people before courts and tribunals. We also do outreach, public legal education and law reform, and we undertake community development and systemic advocacy work — what we call legal empowerment.

Maaike: How do you provide your services?

Michele: We work from our main office in the small urban center of Belleville. And we have nine remote locations including one on a First Nations Territory. We used to have independent satellite offices, but now we have partners that house us, as examples, in a community health center, a public library and a municipal welfare office.

We don’t always need to see people in person. We cover a huge geographical area — it’s a 2½ hour drive from north to south — so to improve access we help a lot of people over the phone.

Maaike: So then the pandemic came and you had to shut down your offices, how did that go?

Michele: There were quite a few hiccups along the way, and there was a lot of pressure on our 18 staff because we had to adapt quickly. It took us a few days to figure out that everybody was having the same problems with the call forwarding system, for example. We discovered that the provider had made some change that messed up the system, but we eventually got it solved. People were taking laptops home and the right electrical cord was not in the bag. Or they did not have the right software, or needed a scanner, printer, or a headset. They might discover the internet connection wasn’t good enough because three other family members worked from home. Or because they lived in the country and the bandwidth couldn’t handle them all. Then we realized that for about 700 staff at Ontario’s legal clinics, Legal Aid Ontario only had 150 licenses for remote work. It took us weeks to get enough licenses so that we could do our work remotely. We still have problems like slowness and disconnections due to server inadequacy and a host of other technical problems.

We also wanted to protect our staff. I had to think about the small number of staff who were still in the office, and to conduct risk assessments around their health. I had to become something of an expert on how COVID gets transmitted and reassure staff who were stressed out by all the changes. Initially I introduced twice daily Rapid Response meetings as well as daily ‘all staff’ meetings to keep people informed, consult on new work processes, solve IT problems, and find ways to keep our client services running.

Maaike: What did you see in terms of people’s justice problems because of the pandemic?

Michele: Well, the first thing to note is that when the virus struck, there was a reduction in the number of calls we received. Initially there was a decline in housing-related inquiries and then a more general decline in calls. This was partly because there was a moratorium on evictions of tenants, but I also think that in the beginning people were just trying to survive.

Now, the number of calls is going back up. People tell us about the trials in their everyday lives. For example, local public transit shifted to an on-demand service. You have to call and reserve a place on a bus 24 to 36 hours in advance. People on a low income are used to looking for sales on groceries and then taking public transport to get to them, but they couldn’t do this now and they could no longer cover their costs.

Maaike: What about the government response to the pandemic?

Michele: The provincial government provided a one-time benefit of $100 on top of your welfare or disability support, or $200 if you had a family, to cover extra expenses. But it was not automatic. You had to call in and express your specific needs to get it. To do this, you had to know it was available. And the province had not communicated this well, so a lot of people didn’t know. It was eventually extended it for a few more months but you could not get it retroactively — another issue of systemic unfairness for us to take on.

The federal government stepped up and offered $500 a week for people who were unable to work — known as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). This development was unprecedented as it also covered people who were self-employed. However, it also created a huge inequity between those who were already on government support and those who now required this support, and a host of legal and entitlement complications. Funding was also provided, for example, to United Way to set up services to deliver food, or to pick up groceries. But this was only for seniors, not for people with disabilities or on welfare. So people had to try to navigate this maze to get access to public services and support.

Maaike: What about the formal court system, did they adapt?

Michele: Most of the courts and tribunals pretty much stopped operating and there was very little that could proceed unless it was an urgent criminal or family law matter. But the provincial tribunal that dealt with income security issues stayed open. But the government’s Disability Adjudication Unit (DAU) whose decisions are appealed to that tribunal was initially quite inflexible. It wouldn’t do anything differently. They insisted on documents being faxed — you couldn’t e-mail them, which meant we had to go to the office. The tribunal said we can’t have any more in-person hearings, and have no capacity to do video conferencing, so it’s going to be telephone hearings only.

That is not a way to offer vulnerable people access to justice. We’ve had to explain the options and the pros and cons of proceeding to our clients. Many wanted to adjourn their hearings, because they can’t come to our office to prepare and without in-person hearings there’s no opportunity for the tribunal members to assess their credibility, which is critically important for people trying to get a disability pension or other welfare benefits.

But then, the system logic kicked in. The tribunal said, “You can ask for adjournment, but you’ll have to wait to do that on the day of the hearing and the hearing member may approve it then,” which means you still have prepared your client and submitted all documents (by fax!). This inflexibility was very tough under the circumstances and very stressful for our clients. It was clear that the tribunal was not focused on what people need. After much advocacy, they relented, and adjournments are now granted when requested.

Maaike: And how did you respond to what people needed during the pandemic?

Michele: We realized that with so many public services shutting down, availability and visibility were key. We needed to pick up the phone as much as possible when people called us. We knew our clients were going to feel neglected and worried and uncertain about the future. It has taken us time to reorganize our workflows. This was a challenge when we were answering calls from home on a temporary cell phone. It took some rejigging, but the goal was clear: pick up the phone as much as possible and do not let people get sent to voicemail. Be a reassuring presence whenever possible.

Also, I think the pandemic has confirmed for me — more than ever — that our approach of working through trusted intermediaries is critical to reaching those who need our help the most. This is about identifying and supporting community partners and those who help others. We redesigned our website last year to focus on providing resources for specific groups of trusted intermediaries, like social service staff, or librarians or health partners, and even other justice sector partners. I think that approach — of drawing on and supporting wide networks of service providers, and the broader community, to help our clients, intervening early and proactively — is very important going forward. We have been advocating for a justice eco-system approach — and partnerships with trusted intermediaries is a crucial component of this strategy.

Maaike: What did you do to help provide up to date information during the pandemic?

Michele: There was new information emerging all the time, both on the virus itself and on the benefits and support that were available. We needed to get this information to people, especially those who do not have as much access as people who are in jobs, for example, or who live in big cities.

So, we immediately set up a COVID legal information page on our website. It uses a blog format, which we have revised five times already to make it simpler for people to understand. It links to information about income security, housing, work, consumer and debt issues, issues for seniors and so on. And we promoted it through Twitter and Facebook, local papers, and through our newsletter email list. We heard that people are really excited about this page, and it continues to get a lot of hits.

We used old-fashioned methods of communication, too. We hung up a poster on the office doors like you would see in a laundromat, saying, “We’re sorry, we can‘t see you in person,” with little tear-off strips with our phone number and email address. But our clients often don’t have phones, or access to enough minutes on those phones, so the poster initially also said that if you don’t have a telephone or access to the internet, please knock on the front door. And we screened people that way; when they had to come in we helped them in an area separate from where the staff worked.

We also had to do all kinds of publicity including in local papers about the extra provincial benefit, to make people aware that it existed and that they were entitled to claim it. In our area, it was not difficult to get once you knew about it. You didn’t have to produce receipts, you just had to say how COVID impacted on your expenses. But people were not aware of it — it wasn’t well promoted. We still have not been able to work out if anybody got any information from the government or if it was just through us and word of mouth. We caused quite a storm on Facebook one day when our announcement of the extended benefit was picked up before it appears it may have been publicly announced! People did not believe us initially!

Maaike: What are the things you did in this period that you’re proudest of, that really made a difference?

Michele: This was a new situation for us as well as for everybody else, and we needed to find out quickly what new problems people might be facing and what services people needed. At the same time as we were getting reorganized to carry out our work remotely and almost entirely digitally, and making sure our existing clients’ rights were protected, I knew we were going to have to shift gears and get more pro-active on systemic issues. We were also going to have to put more focus on the needs of the intermediaries. I wanted to be sure it was going to be worth the time we put into it and to understand what our priorities for action should be.

Michele Leering

We put out a simple on-line survey asking: Are you a person who helps others? Or are you a person who yourself might need help? And what are your needs for legal information? How would you like to receive that information? And is there anything else that you can think of that we can do to help?

It was a three-minute survey, and we sent it out through print and social media and our e-mail list. We had 57 responses in five days, and 80% of them were from intermediaries. It’s not a huge number, but it’s enough right now. It was clear that the need for information about income security was very high, and employment issues shot up in terms of importance. Housing dropped from where it would normally be, although it was equivalent to employment. And consumer and debt issues are definitely edging up. Finding out more about how people wanted to get information and help, gave us a much better idea of where to put our energy.

I think the COVID legal information page, and its links to Steps to Justice, an amazing resource created by our sister clinic Community Legal Education Ontario, have been important contributions. Staff also created an infographic on government income programs and we are experimenting with an on-line intake form for legal information and advice. As a result of what we learned from the survey, we are now piloting a series of virtual Justice Cafes on legal issues of concern in our communities.

Maaike: Have you heard of any government entity or court doing the same thing that you did, asking people what they needed or how they wanted it?

Michele: Not in those early days. And it came through really strongly in the responses to the survey — how helpful people thought we were, and appreciative that we were so visible during this time when others were just disappearing. So that was a great boost for staff morale because we were all pretty exhausted by all the changes — to laws, to procedures, to workflows, and the shift to working digitally.

Maaike: What other justice challenges do you think the virus will present?

Michele: I think demand for services in the poverty law area will grow, because there are more people who will be poor, more problems with benefit programs, losing their jobs and their housing, more victims of domestic violence, and more people facing consumer and debt challenges. So, there are more people who will have justice problems. And their problems will be more interconnected, which adds complexity. Plus, we’re going to have to deal with everything that’s been put on hold, like all those hearings that were adjourned, eviction proceedings put on hold, unresolved disputes, more people needing disability benefits due to ill health, and all those people who are going to be cut off benefits or be contesting overpayments.

There is also a danger that some of the measures that have been put in place, like telephone hearings, will replace in-person or even virtual hearings, without proper evaluation of what is gained or lost. What works, why and for whom — and who gets left out — we need to ask these questions.

The economic fallout from COVID presents a risk for the funding of legal aid services which are partially reliant on interest on lawyer’s trust accounts. We are told that the loss of revenues will double the devastating impact of last year’s provincial government cut of 30% to Legal Aid Ontario. So, we may face funding cuts and have fewer staff to deal with the demand. On top of that, we want to be sure that post-pandemic planning doesn’t leave our clients out in the cold, we want to promote a “just recovery.”

Maaike: Have there been any positive developments or things that have made your work easier?

Michele: Yes. Staff teamwork! We’ve been able to simplify workflows. Some tribunals have allowed us to dispense with getting written client authorizations. Electronic signatures will be more commonly used. And for the kind of legal work we do, we hope we can continue to send emails and get people to agree to retain us more simply without the need for so much paperwork and in-person visits. This isn’t the way we worked beforehand. We were always stuck with our Law Society ethical guidelines, and protocols based on a paper-copy world of practice. Although disorienting, it’s been refreshing to dispense with old ways of working and to redesign our internal office systems We’ve reintroduced one of our old reflective practice exercises that we call “this practice is toast” to weed out inefficient ways of doing things.

But some of the government departments we deal with have already told us that we’re going to go back to “normal” afterwards. For example, the DAU (Disability Adjudication Unit) eventually set up secure email systems for us to submit documents electronically but told us they would abandon this when the crisis was over. So, believe it or not, we may have to go back to faxing them documents! I really hope we can prevent this regression. We want to move forward into a more digital age — our staff have learned a lot through this process of turning on a dime and embracing working electronically. We have all become more adept at using digital technology, including for virtual meetings — and we want to see where that can take us.

To read more justice Champions of Change interviews, visit: https://www.justice.sdg16.plus/champions-of-change