by Heather de Berdt Romilly, Executive Director of the Legal Information Society of Nova Scotia (LISNS),
February 1, 2019, Chronicle Herald 'Commentary: Lawyers Develop Tools to help citizens avoid legal trouble'.
I was very interested in your well-written editorial (Money still a big barrier, Jan. 28) on reforming justice. I hope the following information may be of interest to continue the discussion.
Reforming justice requires recognizing the importance of people being provided with quality legal information about their rights and obligations at an early stage in time, before they get into trouble.
This is the role played by public legal education in the form of the Legal Information Society of Nova Scotia (three people strong), recently profiled by the Access to Justice and Law Reform Institute as an unsung access to justice hero (www.talkjustice.ca/blog).
We hear from people daily on our free, anonymous legal help line (300,000 served) and through live chat and email regarding potential or existing conflicts. We are trained lawyers who, through legal information, assist people with finding legal and non-legal options. Access to justice demands that we be innovative in developing tools to help people get the information they need, when and how they need it.
Examples include our free “wills” application which helps people make a will and provides information throughout to guide them. Templates are provided, along with support from LISNS, with referral to a lawyer available. We also have a free “small claims court” application, developed in partnership with leading adjudicators, to help people understand the process and how to prepare for it and conduct themselves.
The lawyers on our service agree to provide a half-hour consultation for a $20 fee, which is often waived. This is an invaluable service. We have “representing yourself” guides and videos developed by experienced litigators on our website.
However, our statistics demonstrate that a significant majority of the people who contact us can be assisted through legal information – a referral to lawyer is not required. Similar to vaccinations to minimize risk of disease, early legal information and proactive education are critical to helping people avoid costly trouble.
We are developing a youth application, working closely with youth at Citadel High, focusing on financial and legal literacy, since financial issues are at the root of the great majority of cases that we hear about.
Through lawyers who want to give back to the community, we provide free wills for disadvantaged seniors and families in the Preston area and are now assisting in other land-title communities in the province. We offer help for sick children and their families on a range of issues, and free powers of attorney for patients in palliative care.
Over 40 students work with us on a regular basis. They come from a range of disciplines, including law and paralegals, political science, IT and education (high school). They offer free wills information and small claims court sessions at public libraries to help people navigate our applications and learn about these processes. As well, they put on events at high schools and create applications at no additional cost to the public purse. These are all highly successful ventures.
But a critical issue that we are just starting to help address is the shortage of lawyers in rural areas. Serving the needs of people outside HRM is a priority because fewer resources exist there. Many lawyers are aging out and, similar to the situation in the medical field, there are no new recruits to take their place. Through lawyers who do want to assist, we are focusing on the use of tele-law, combined with our applications, to promote services to people who cannot otherwise access a lawyer. Since it is not reasonable to expect lawyers to provide pro bono services regularly, we are encouraging the use of low billing or value billing to serve those with limited means to pay.
Reforming justice needs to start with addressing matters where they arise and with helping people stay out of trouble in the first place. Investment in early legal education is critical. Support is needed for initiatives that are making a difference on the ground, delivering access to justice in real time and at no additional cost to the public.