Family law lawyers are thin on the ground in many rural and remote parts of Ontario. Family law lawyers who take legal aid certificates and who have expertise in cases involving family violence are even more rare.
Women who are fleeing an abusive relationship face many challenges and stresses in their journey. They need strong legal representation, but if they live in a small or rural community or in a remote part of the province, they may have few choices available to them.
In addition to the low numbers of family law lawyers in these communities, a woman’s abusive partner may intentionally create a conflict of interest with the few who are available by seeking consultations with them before the woman has an opportunity to retain one.
After hearing repeated stories from support workers about the lack of access to legal representation for women in northern and small communities, Luke’s Place decided something needed to be done.
Luke’s Place is a Durham region organization that provides family law/court support to women leaving abusive relationships. Its work includes the delivery of in-person direct services for women in Durham region and the development of resources, supports and training for organizations supporting women throughout the province.
With financial support from the Law Foundation of Ontario, Luke’s Place has created a Virtual Legal Clinic (VLC), based on its in-person Pro Bono Summary Advice Clinic, which operates in Durham region one day a week.
The VLC uses a web-based video conferencing platform as well as the telephone to connect women to trained volunteer lawyers for summary legal advice. To access the VLC, women with a family law issue who do not have a lawyer must be connected with a support worker in her community who assists her to prepare for the meeting with the lawyer.
The worker can — but does not have to — attend the virtual meeting to provide emotional support, assist the woman to remember what she wants to talk about and take notes to refresh the woman’s memory after the meeting is over. There is no financial eligibility test to qualify for services from the VLC.
Luke’s Place screens interested lawyers, who must complete its CPD-accredited online course on effective lawyering for clients leaving abusive relationships before being placed on the roster. The hours a lawyer volunteers with the VLC are LawPRO approved.
When a woman needs an appointment with a lawyer, her support worker contacts Luke’s Place, which passes the request on to the roster lawyers. The appointment details are worked out between the lawyer and the support worker, while Luke’s Place co-ordinates the video conference. Appointments can usually take place within a week of the request being made.
The VLC has evolved as Luke’s Place has learned more about what works well for women and their support workers. Originally offering services in northern Ontario only, it now operates in most of the province, with province wide availability anticipated by the end of 2020. Lawyers can provide online consultations with workers who have identified family law trends and want legal information so they can better support their clients.
Because it can be difficult for women in remote parts of the province to get to their family law support worker, the VLC can deliver services to women who are in any safe community agency. In that situation, the online appointment may involve the lawyer, the woman at a community agency and her family law support worker at her agency. Services can also be delivered through an interpreter. For safety reasons, women cannot meet with the lawyer from their home.
In an article by The Law Foundation of Ontario, Min Jin, a Toronto family law lawyer who volunteers with the VLC, says: “For women in rural or remote communities, their resources are limited. For so many women it’s simply not possible to find a family law lawyer and drop in for a consultation. With the Virtual Clinic, I can walk women who live anywhere in the province through the process so they’re prepared when they go to court.”
Women who have used the VLC report that they have a greater understanding about the law as well as more confidence in managing their family law case. Workers also have high praise for the clinic, noting that they now have somewhere to refer clients for much-needed legal advice without the woman having to travel a long distance or leave her support worker behind.
For more information about the VLC and how to volunteer, contact Admin@LukesPlace.ca.
This article was originally published by The Lawyer’s Daily, part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.