| Jul 02, 2009

Back to HomeLegalese - July 2, 2009 Access to justice

By  Susan Irwin, Executive Director / Lawyer, Rural Legal Services

It is a phrase that means different things to different people. To a woman who has been repeatedly assaulted and abused by her spouse, it might mean getting legal help to bring a claim for compensation before the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board; to a tenant about to be evicted, it might mean the opportunity both to contest the eviction and to obtain an order from the Landlord & Tenant Board forcing the landlord to make building repairs; while to a businessman, it might mean the ability to obtain a quick ruling on a disputed contract. Their perspectives may be different, but it is clear that even the best legal system is of limited usefulness if it cannot be accessed by those in need.

One of the most common barriers for people attempting to access our justice system is the cost of obtaining legal representation, a difficulty which is aptly summarized by a coffee mug inscription that reads: “Talk is cheap, until you talk to a lawyer!”

The financial inability of many people in our society to afford a lawyer is a concern which initially led to the creation of the Ontario Legal Aid Plan. Originally operated by the Law Society of Upper Canada, the plan has grown dramatically since its inception and is now administered by Legal Aid Ontario, a corporate entity independent of government but reliant on the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General for operational funding.

Community Legal Clinics, such as Rural Legal Services, are part of Ontario’s legal aid plan. As a not-for –profit organization funded by Legal Aid Ontario and governed by a Board of Directors made up of interested individuals from the community, our mission is to provide area residents with access to justice through advocacy, including legal advice and representation, public legal education and referrals to other community agencies, government and legal services.

Unlike most legal services, our help is free. Regardless of where you live or your level of income we can provide the following information and advice services without charge:

identifying whether or not you have a “legal” problem,

identifying the legal issues,

discussing whether you need a lawyer and how to go about finding one if we are unable to help you further,

identifying whether there are other services, such as government ministries or agencies, that also may be able to provide assistance and,

providing information on a variety of legal topics through this column, the distribution of pamphlets and brochures and presentations to interested groups on various legal issues.

In order to qualify for our more extensive legal services such as casework and representation before Ontario’s courts and administrative tribunals, you must reside in Northern Lennox & Addington County or Northern Frontenac County and have income within LAO’s financial eligibility guidelines. Consequently if you are on Ontario Works, ODSP, or are a senior receiving the guaranteed income supplement you are automatically eligible for our casework services.

We can also take applications for Legal Aid Certificates that will allow financially eligible people to hire a lawyer to represent them, most often in family or criminal law matters. Decisions on Legal Aid Certificates are made by the area Legal Aid Ontario office in Kingston.

Since Rural Legal Services was incorporated in 1992, demand for our legal services has continued to grow. We are told by all of our clients who respond to surveys about the quality and effectiveness of our services not only that our services have helped, but also that they would tell someone else to come to Rural Legal Services if he/she needed legal help or advice.

As a publicly funded service Rural Legal Services is accountable to you, the taxpayer, for the services that we provide, as well as to Legal Aid Ontario, our members and Directors. If you have questions or comments about our services, or if you need legal advice, please give us a call.

Legalese is a column of general information and opinion on legal topics by the lawyers of Rural Legal Services, Box 359, Sharbot Lake, ON, K0H2P0, 613-279-3252, or 1-888-777-8916. This column is not intended to provide legal advice. You should contact a lawyer to determine your legal rights and obligations.

Support local
independant journalism by becoming a patron of the Frontenac News.