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Patricia Byrne, People's Law School

Hotlines help with access to justice issues: legal organizations

Tuesday, April 02, 2019 @ 9:49 AM | By Ian Burns

Legal organizations and thinkers throughout Canada are grappling with ways to help people get the legal information they require in the face of significant access to justice issues. And people in British Columbia and Ontario may be able to get answers to their questions by simply picking up a telephone.

The Canadian Bar Association, B.C. Branch (CBABC) recently joined forces with the People’s Law School, a non-profit society providing free education and information to help British Columbians with their legal concerns, to run the Dial-A-Law program. Established in 1983, Dial-A-Law is an electronic interface that allows callers to access the areas of law that they want to seek information about, featuring over 125 scripts of legal information written and edited by volunteer lawyers in British Columbia. In addition, Dial-A-Law has a website which offers the same information online.

Patricia Byrne, People's Law School

People’s Law School executive director Patricia Byrne

“These scripts were created by lawyers over the years who volunteered their time to the bar association to create and maintain them,” said People’s Law School executive director Patricia Byrne. “We’re starting to build the strong connections and support of the CBABC volunteer base as we maintain or support the Dial-A-Law services — so we will continue to rely on lawyers to help us maintain the scripts and update them as required.”

People’s Law School has updated Dial-A-Law’s website and telephone service to make them more user-friendly, said Byrne. She said Dial-A-Law, which is also looking at implementing text message and chatbot features in the near future, provides an opportunity for British Columbians to have “curated information on the law.”

“We identify the areas of everyday living where people come up against legal issues and provide the information that we believe, based on our research, they really need to know about,” she said. “And so, by identifying these areas and putting legal information in ways that can be understood by the general public, we believe we are providing better access to justice.”

And people needing legal assistance in Ontario have a resource that goes even further, giving them the opportunity to speak directly to a lawyer. Pro Bono Ontario (PBO)’s legal advice hotline was launched in September 2017, staffed by volunteer lawyers who help people work through their concerns, including civil court matters, employment, housing and consumer issues. Lawyers on the hotline can also assist filling out some court documents as well.

PBO executive director Lynn Burns said approximately 81 per cent of the cases the hotline receives are resolved with the first call, and those who need more assistance are referred to Legal Aid Ontario or other programs offered by PBO.

“I can’t stress how important it is for people to get timely legal advice. Sometimes people are calling, saying they’re being sexually harassed at work and they don’t know if they should go in the next day,” she said. “They need to speak to someone immediately.”

The hotline concentrates on civil matters and does not deal with criminal or family issues. Burns said when Pro Bono Ontario was created in 2001, there were concerns about not duplicating the work of Legal Aid Ontario.

“But it turns out both the federal and provincial legal needs assessment have shown that non-family civil cases are the greatest area of unmet need,” she said. “So, we try to make sure our services are co-ordinated, impactful and timely because we see how important it is for people to get advice early on — it’s so much easier to help someone with a debt problem resolve it before they are facing foreclosure, for example.”

Burns noted access to justice is currently at a crisis stage with a significant demand for legal advice, leading to a need to “ration” legal services the same way one would for medical services.

“If a person has a headache they don’t go to a brain surgeon, they go to a pharmacist. And if the headache continues for a few days, then they go to their family doctor and if it’s something more serious they consult a neurologist,” she said. “So that’s what we’re trying to do — everybody needs legal advice when they’re faced with a problem, so everybody gets that. And for those who need more assistance we provide limited scope services for them.”

Research shows two-thirds of Canadians facing legal problems either handle it themselves or do nothing, said Byrne.

“The Internet is both a blessing and a curse — a blessing that it provides so much access to information, but it’s a curse in the sense that the amount of information that can be present is overwhelming,” she said. “We see access to justice as a continuum, all the way from a booklet on the law to full representation by a lawyer. We’re at the earlier end, the intervention and information end.”

B.C.’s Dial-A-Law program can be accessed by clicking here. PBO’s hotline can be reached by calling 1-855-255-7256.