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Website offers step-by-step legal information

Thursday, February 23, 2017 @ 7:00 PM | By Ann Macaulay


Several justice-sector organizations have joined forces to create a website that provides people in Ontario with easy-to-understand information about legal issues. Stepstojustice.ca has comprehensive, step-by-step information on issues people commonly encounter in family, housing, employment, criminal and other areas of law.

“People experience legal problems. They have legal issues that arise in the normal course of their lives,” said Julie Mathews, executive director of Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO). In setting out information explaining legal issues, from job-related problems to separating from a partner, to adopting a child, the idea “is to get this information to people as early as possible when they have those questions or problems…it really is pioneering in terms of the level and the depth of the collaboration.”

Launched in January, the site is led by CLEO and brings together partners, including the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, the Superior Court of Justice, the Ontario Court of Justice, the Social Justice Tribunals of Ontario, Legal Aid Ontario, the Law Society of Upper Canada and the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario. These partners have collaborated on content development to ensure the information is accurate and practical, and the website will be reviewed and updated regularly based on their input.

The organizations recognized people needed a site that was easy to access and find what they need for their specific situation, said Mathews. Much of the information these organizations have produced over the last few years has been explanatory but hasn’t always included the practical next steps that people can take. They need reliable information they can trust and can act on, “whether it’s getting more help or, for those who are equipped to do so, taking some steps on their own.”

The Steps to Justice site follows last year’s launch of the MyLawBC interactive site, developed by the Legal Services Society, which offers easy-to-understand information on several legal topics. Websites that provide people with legal information have proliferated over the past decade or so, said Mathews. That can be a good thing but research has shown that people who search online find it difficult “to sort through what they find and figure out what’s relevant and apply it to their situation and, more importantly, whether it’s legally accurate.”

Steps to Justice has more than 40 organizations providing content written by lawyers, said Mathews. Front-line lawyers provided the questions that are asked most frequently by their clients. The content “was then tested with the public, it has been edited by plain-language experts and it’s been reviewed by a lot of legal experts who work in the various areas,” said Mathews. It currently has “about 369 questions and eight major areas and we’re building on that so it’s just the start.”

Legal topics on the Steps to Justice site are separated into eight main sections: abuse and family violence; consumer law; criminal law; employment and work; family law; housing law; human rights; and social assistance.

Each of those is broken down into subsections to describe particular legal issues and provide typical questions clients have. The site also has practical tools, including checklists, fillable forms, a glossary and self-help guides. It offers referral information for legal and social services across the province and connects people via live chat and e-mail-based support to provide answers to additional questions that can arise.

The site is practical, easy to navigate and is a good starting point for finding legal information, said Tami Moscoe, family counsel, office of the chief justice, Superior Court of Justice, who spent dozens of hours working on the content for the family law area. She said family lawyers, the courts, legal aid and some institutional partners helped to review the content. “It’s one very amazing tool in the toolbox,” she said, but cautioned that “people still need legal advice.”

A poll done by The Action Group on Access to Justice (TAG) in August 2016, titled Public Perceptions of Access to Justice in Ontario, found that 39 per cent of Ontarians do not believe they have fair and equal access to the justice system and 48 per cent believe that published, practical legal information would enhance access to justice. The survey also showed that, “shockingly, only one in four people are using the Internet to understand their legal problem. And when you think about the era that we’re in, the first thing we do whenever we have a problem or a question in our lives is to Google it,” said Sabreena Delhon, manager at TAG. “So we’re missing a big opportunity here.” She added that 78 per cent of those surveyed viewed the legal system as old-fashioned and 71 per cent saw it as intimidating.

“Steps to Justice — in its design and plain-language approach — is looking to counter these results,” she said.

It was through TAG that a lot of organizations and institutions in the justice sector learned they had very similar ideas to develop a plain-language website that would have information about common legal problems, Delhon said. “These organizations knew that they had a shared goal, which is very important. And we were able to identify CLEO as the lead on this and ensure that this was a collaborative undertaking that would serve the common goal of ensuring that people in Ontario have reliable, plain-language information about common legal problems.”

One of the most interesting tools on the site is the ability for organizations and law firms to embed any or all of the content from Steps to Justice onto their sites.

“It’s more than just linking to it, the content can live on their site and then be automatically updated behind the scenes,” said Mathews. “Everyone will know it’s reliable. We’re going to get that brand recognition out there and then they can customize around it and add their own local referral information.”

Mathews has received a lot of positive feedback from organizations, even though the site has been live for such a short time. She’s had at least 14 requests to embed information from the site.

There’s been a lack of awareness about information on the law and people don’t know where to turn for help, said Delhon. But the Steps to Justice site is “legitimate, credible, practical and clear, so it’s responding to and identifying need using a channel that has been underutilized to date. And it’s bringing the right people together.”