Overcoming Access Hesitancy With the Legal Health Check-Up

Access hesitancy is a widely acknowledged and persistent barrier to providing access to justice services. The people-centered approach that is integral to the Legal Health Check-up (LHC) can identify disadvantaged people with problems and provide them with help, in a manner that they will hopefully perceive as providing fair and just resolutions to the problems with which they are struggling. In that way, the LHC model offers a one good solution to the problem of access hesitancy.

The original Legal Heath Check-up project, carried out by Halton Community Legal Services (HCLS) began with the objective of recruiting community organizations to carry out the two gateway roles of trusted intermediaries: problem spotting and making good referrals. The next year the LHC was piloted in 12 community legal clinics in Southwestern Ontario. Following the two pilot studies the LHC continues to be a part of the delivery models of community legal clinics that inform individuals and community organizations about it as part of their on-going outreach within their communities. The project was a response to some of the legacy results of the contemporary body of legal problems research inspired by the pioneering research by Hazel Genn, Paths to Justice; What people do and say about going to law, Oxford, 1999. Many people do not understand the seriousness of a justiciable problem when it first occurs. They do not recognize the legal aspects and risks of everyday legal problems they are experiencing. They do not take action to resolve them, often not at all or at least until the situation is dire. Very frequently when they do attempt to resolve the problem they may not take appropriate action. Not surprisingly, this had been well-known to service providers based on practical experience, but it lacked the persuasive power of widely-publicized systematic empirical research.

Community organizations are places where people often go for help. Community services and voluntary associations are trusted intermediaries that can bridge the gap between legal clinics and people with unrecognized legal need. The legal health check-up tool is a questionnaire asking about a range of possible problems being experienced, for example debt or housing, framed without reference to legal issues. The LHC tool functioned as a short-cut to legal capability for the trusted intermediaries, enabling them to explore potential legal problems with clients or members of their constituency, spot potential problems and ask people if they would like help from the community legal clinic.

The legal health check-up was transformational for both community legal clinics and for disadvantaged individuals and trusted intermediaries in the community. For the community, the LHC had a transformational effect on their understanding of the “legal” services provided by progressive community legal clinics. Early on during the Halton pilot, as we talked with community partners it became clear that the people-centered proactive offer of help and the holistic and integrated approach offered by HCLS had the potential to overcome widespread access hesitancy because of the factors already noted above; not knowing that anything could be done, not knowing where to go for help and, in addition, reluctance to become involved with lawyers, all which pose significant barriers to access to justice. As a service provider from one of the trusted intermediaries said, having been told about the people-centered approach being developed by HCLS with the LHC: “well, you must be a different kind of lawyer.” Second, the LHC had a transformative effect on the clinics that used it. At intake or the first assessment with a service provider the check-up tool was not used as a questionnaire but rather as the basis around which an open conversation with the new client could occur. Multiple interconnected problems, complex issues relating to disability or health and the presence of trauma could be identified and explored. This allowed service providers to begin thinking like the people they are trying to assist, understanding how people experience problems and providing help in a way that makes sense to them.

Ab Currie, Ph.D.
Senior Research Fellow
Canadian Forum on Civil Justice

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