People can find it difficult to understand their legal problems and the justice system. It’s even more challenging for people dealing with communication barriers. Fortunately, Connecting Ottawa is here to help. Its mandate is to improve access to justice for people who do not speak English or French or who have to deal with a communication challenge because of a physical or sensory disability.
Connecting Ottawa is a unique project model, initiated and funded by The Law Foundation of Ontario. It is a network of more than 50 frontline service agencies that operate in a wide variety of sectors, such as the legal, health, immigration, and social services. By working together, these organizations can better address clients’ legal issues. Led by a coordinator, Connecting Ottawa’s social worker and lawyer partner with frontline workers (sometimes called “trusted intermediaries”) from these agencies to offer their clients legal information and referrals, and in some situations legal representation. Connecting Ottawa also offers continuing legal education to the trusted intermediaries so that they are equipped to communicate information to their own clients and give referrals.
“We take a holistic approach to helping our clients. Health care workers, social workers, translators and interpreters, and accompanying volunteers, to name a few, are all people who contribute to the strength of our network,” says Alexandra Derisier, a lawyer with Connecting Ottawa.
“There was one gentleman who was referred to us by the Catholic Centre for Immigrants who received help to obtain Canadian residence. He had already initiated the process of bringing his family to Canada but he became seriously ill and became almost deaf. It was therefore urgent that his family come to join him to take care of him. We developed a strategy with the help of various partners and had his family reunited more quickly,” says Alexandra.
Connecting Ottawa brings the legal community and community organizations together to learn from one another and improve the services they provide to the public. Each year, trusted intermediaries refer approximately 450 clients to Connecting Ottawa, many of whom would not have otherwise been able to access the justice system, as they have the right to do.
According to Alexandra: “They are true partners because they don’t just refer clients to us, we work together. Yes, we help clients directly, but we also work a lot upstream. We offer training in various forms so that trusted intermediaries can help people as much as possible without having to reach out to us.”
Trusted intermediaries are often the first, and sometimes only, resource that the public approaches with a problem, legal or otherwise. In some situations, clients need the help of a trusted intermediary to understand that their problem has a legal element. Because members of the public feel that they can confide in the frontline workers of local agencies, they are more likely to take steps to resolve their legal problems.
Obviously, trusted intermediaries cannot replace lawyers and do not give legal advice, but they do develop legal knowledge and become familiar with the laws and the different situations their clients face. And, this cooperation is beneficial for the legal community too. Legal professionals can see clients, and their legal problems, from a different perspective. It encourages legal practitioners to be increasingly creative and flexible.
Alexander Alfred, of the Vanier Community Service Centre, refers clients to Connecting Ottawa every year. “It’s an amazing resource that helps us to help people”, Alexander says. “And when in doubt or when the issue is beyond our legal capabilities, we know we can count on Alexandra and Connecting Ottawa to help, even in the most difficult cases.”
“Access to justice has become a very important challenge and the subject comes up constantly in the news,” Alexandra says. “We know just how complex and taxing it is for citizens to cope when they understand the language and have no problems communicating… Now imagine how it is for those who do have challenges. I love my work and I am very proud of what we do.”
The Law Foundation of Ontario has supported the unique and important role of trusted intermediaries for many years. Since 2015 alone, the Foundation has provided close to $15M in full and partial funding for the training and supports of trusted intermediaries so they can provide better legal information and referrals to those they serve.
The Foundation recently commissioned research to gain a deeper understanding of the role of trusted intermediaries. Learn more about and download Part 1 and Part 2 of the report: Trusted Help: the role of community workers as trusted intermediaries who help people with legal problems.
The Foundation also recently commissioned an evaluation of our Connecting Regionprogram, which is an initiative of our larger Connecting Project. The evaluation focused on the effectiveness of the Connecting Ottawa project and seed funding that was granted to three consortiums to develop a regional model. Download a PDF of the evaluation report here: The Law Foundation of Ontario Connecting Region: Final Evaluation Report (2018).