A Seamless Approach to Service Delivery in Legal Aid: Fulfilling a Promise or Maintaining a Myth?

3. The Neighbourhood Law Office in Practice: Parkdale Community Legal Services

3. The Neighbourhood Law Office in Practice: Parkdale Community Legal Services

The literature describes and promotes competing visions for the delivery of civil legal services to low income individuals and communities. Most write from the perspective of how those services should be provided and paid for, and range from those that decry the role of law and lawyers and envision a revolution of the poor, to those that frame the debate inside law, as one between staff lawyers and fee for service, to positions that combine both to varying degrees. The picture shifts somewhat, however, if one simply asks what people using legal aid services want. Paradoxically, the most "radical" position, the influential analysis offered by Edgar and Jean Cahn,[82] is essentially the most conservative, from a prospective client's point of view. It is also a perspective very much rooted in the American experience. The Cahn's proposal for the use of neighbourhood courts and poor centred practices is actually static rather than transformative from an individual client's perspective, and is premised on the presence of an enduring underclass, joined in mutual self interest by their poverty and social location. However, poor people do not want to stay poor, do not want to identify as poor and most importantly, are not a monolith, particularly in Canada. For example, immigrants may be poor when they arrive, but they have immigrated to improve themselves. They want to assimilate to a more affluent position and move out of their poor "neighbourhood", not stay behind to revolutionize it. In contrast, the bleak critique offered by Laureen Snider,[83] although not entirely successful, its general damnation of legal aid offers a more transformative vision, if not of society, then for the poor themselves. For example, it is transformative, for the next generation at least, to acquire better health, housing and education. That means ensuring that the techniques that secure better health, housing and education are developed and applied, and that the sense that it is possible to hold the State accountable, and to move out' of poverty is nourished.

It is this optimistic vision that animates the "neighbourhood" law office model, and has been functioning and indeed flourishing at Parkdale Community Legal Services. This vision offers a means to hold legal services accountable and to measure outcomes in a way that might encourage government to replicate the Parkdale "model" across the country. In essence, this is the model that Doug Ewart envisions as a way to accommodate both budget restraint and effective (as contrasted with token, and simply legitimating) legal aid services.

3.1 Parkdale: The Community and the Clinic

The Toronto community of Parkdale became home to a unique project of Osgoode Hall, Law School of York University and the Ontario Legal Aid Plan - Parkdale Community Legal Services (the "Clinic") in 1971. The description of the community provided in a funding application to the federal Department of Health and Welfare in 1972 is remarkably applicable almost 30 years later, a testament to the tenacity of poverty:

The community law office's catchment area is defined as Bloor Street on the north, Lake Ontario on the south, Dufferin Street on the east and High Park on the west. Parkdale was a well-to-do neighbourhood during the 1920s. The large three storey detached houses south of Queen Street were then well-maintained single family homes. But time, the Gardiner Expressway and land speculation have changed the appearance and composition of the community.

Today, the majority of large homes are rooming houses with often as many as fourteen unrelated people living under one roof. The two movie theatres have long been empty and the only businesses still doing well are the three major beer parlours. Parkdale has remained a predominantly English speaking community being the major receiving area for Maritimers arriving in Toronto. There is a scattering of middle European groups including immigrants from Germany, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and Poland. In the area of Dufferin and Dundas Street and to the east are a number of Italians and Portuguese. The Atlantic Centre, situated also on Queen Street West, offering social assistance to the Maritimers, estimates that about 15% of the Parkdale population is made up of East coast migrants. In the high rise apartment of Jameson Avenue, there is a concentration of West Indians. However, most of the Parkdale community can be described as white, English speaking and poor.

Parkdale is unstable in the sense that many transients move about, but apparently they move within the boundaries of Parkdale and not out of the area completely. Welfare workers tend to trade files within the area and seldom transfer cases to a new district. The seven welfare workers average approximately 150 cases each. This total of course does not include those residents receiving unemployment, Worker's Compensation or Family Benefits.

The Ontario Housing Corporation is beginning to make its presence felt in Parkdale. It is presently erecting a 348 family unit approximately one block from the community law office. We have also been informed that several other Ontario Housing Corporation buildings are planned for the immediate vicinity. Additional institutional housing in Parkdale includes approximately fifteen half-way houses, for individuals recently-released from mental institutions or prisons. There are also several nursing homes and an emergency housing unit.

Despite its name, Parkdale is a community without parks. There are virtually no recreational facilities for teenagers. The rate of glue-sniffing and drug use among the young of Parkdale is very high as are the crime and prostitution rates. It is estimated that 70% of the homes in the community are divided into rooming houses or flats with considerable sub-standard housing. The presence of municipal housing inspectors in the area is too little or to no avail. Parkdale itself provides little employment which makes it primarily a dormitory community. The lack of any casual employment in the area tends to evidence itself in the number of people who appear to be "hanging around" on the street and other public places.[84]


There have been considerable changes in the population of Parkdale since 1971. It is no longer predominantly English speaking for example, as Parkdale has become a first stop for refugees from all over the world - Vietnamese, Chinese, Tamil and African, Somali and other East Africans followed Central and South Americans. However, even though Parkdale has become more ethnically heterogenous, little else has changed. The average income is significantly lower than that of Metropolitan Toronto as a whole. Much of the housing stock is low income and in poor repair. The largest mental hospital in the Province is located in Parkdale, as is the highest concentration of group homes and rooming houses in the city [85] as a core population, identified by their status as psychiatric survivors, substance abuse and conflict with the law continue to call Parkdale home.

All these folks want "up and out" of poverty. Many succeed and it is important to replicate and support the reasons for their success. Many do not and the reasons must be found. All have different experiences of law, the legal system and of poverty. Gender, age, race, culture, mental health and history with the criminal justice system generate very different relationships with law, lawyers, poverty and the state. A poverty law model that fails to account for these differences is wrong. A poverty law model that assumes lack of mobility is wrong. One that assumes "the poor are not like you and I" is wrong. One that patronizes the poor is wrong. And finally, one that assumes or claims that law is the engine of social change is wrong. It is transformative to protect rights, to defend gains, to build alliances and to allow people to move on to make their own political choices. Ultimately it is transformative to be humble and to remember what it might be like if no one spoke on behalf of those who would otherwise have no voice at all.

The "Clinic" that was ultimately established in Parkdale attempts to be that voice, to offer those options. It is mandated by its joint funders, the Ontario Legal Aid Plan and Osgoode Hall Law School to address the legal needs of the low income residents of this community and required by its statement of Goals and Objectives to:

  1. Establish, maintain and operate a community legal clinic within and for the benefit of the Parkdale community in Toronto, Ontario, and in connection with this and subject to the applicable laws of Ontario from time to time, to provide advice, assistance, representation, education and research to both individuals and groups, and to organize, carry on and participate in such other activities as may from time to time seem expedient for the benefit of the Parkdale community.

  2. In the course of providing services as aforesaid, to participate with a university school of law in the education and training of students of law. [86]

This mandate has given the Clinic the opportunity to provide innovative, community controlled legal services to Parkdale residents for almost 30 years; service with an equal focus on law reform, organizing, and case work. Originally very much a product of the "Just Society" movement of the 1970s (and the American "War on Poverty") the Clinic has been committed to grass roots organizing, coalition building, and law reform since its inception.[87] The Parkdale "model" combines case work, community education and development, legal education and lobbying, and law reform in a resilient and enduring whole. The Clinic concentrates this focus in four subject area "groups" jointly directed by a team composed of a lawyer and at least one community legal worker and "staffed" by five law students (who spend at least an entire law school semester and often one or even two summers working full time at the Clinic). Those subject areas, "Family and Welfare"; "Housing"; "Workers Rights"; and "Immigration and Refugee" law also cover a range of subsidiary issues such as police misconduct; psychiatric survivor rights, witness assistance for victims of wife abuse; and anti-racism initiatives, to name a few. The Clinic also trains two articling students per year and employs a range of cultural interpreters on a part time basis along with the usual support staff. It is managed and directed by co-directors (one, the "academic director" is a member of the faculty of Osgoode Hall Law School) who report to a Board of Directors comprised of community members (a majority) and representatives of the Law School, the Clinic staff, the students and the legal community. Unlike the pattern at almost all other community clinics (in Ontario at least) the community legal workers (originally known as "lay advocates") do not do individual case work, but rather devote their time to community development and education and to training the law students in those skills. The law students in fact do the bulk of the case work, but are also required to participate in at least one community project and to write a significant research paper on an issue of importance to the Clinic in order to complete the academic requirements of their semester.

3.2 The Immigration and Refugee Law Division: A Case Study

Parkdale has always assisted immigrants and refugees but only created a division devoted solely to Immigration and Refugee issues in 1989. From its inception, the "Immigration Group" made good use of the "Parkdale Model" and developed what they called an "integrated approach" to immigration issues, combining case work, community development and coalition building into highly effective whole.[88] Along with very effective community development initiatives, the group does some of the most sophisticated litigation in the Clinic; for example, representing interveners at the Supreme Court of Canada.[89]

A current issue demonstrates the approach. Restructuring is an amalgam of neo-liberal and neo-conservative practices and beliefs which have combined to legitimate particularly harsh measures against certain marginalized groups - welfare mom's, undocumented workers, refugees.[90] None are as cruel (or shortsighted) as the initiative which started in California and spread to other states with a perceived problem with illegal aliens, as the denial of health and welfare assistance to both undocumented workers and their US born children.[91] The factually false but politically seductive claim is made that "illegal aliens" are "abusing the system" and costing hard pressed taxpayer's money with their profligate abuse of health and social services. The "solution" is to deny those services not only to the adults without documentation, but also their children who should have birthright citizenship.[92] This troubling idea has come to Canada - and to Parkdale. Canadian-born children are being denied health coverage in Ontario because of their parents' (irregular/undocumented) immigration status. The children, citizens by birthright, have been denied OHIP coverage with the sometimes tragic result that the children fail to receive necessary health services.

The Clinic's response provides an excellent "case study" of the way that the "Parkdale model" works in regard to a concrete issue.[93] As these cases began to come in to the Clinic, as a first step, a student undertook to research the issue as part of his academic obligations. That research formed the basis for the legal work being done on this, and the related issue resolved earlier, concerning school admission for these children.[94] The next step, being directed by the community legal worker, is to pursue the issue through organizing education and lobbying (examples of the posters and flyers are in the attached Appendices). A campaign of public legal education aimed first at the professional and expert community of health care practitioners, and organized immigrant assistance associations through a series of workshops designed to identify issues and develop joint strategies comes first. More focused roundtable discussions are planned to follow which may be videotaped and shared broadly. Subsequent steps are designed to reach out to the affected families. This work requires more innovative techniques given the vulnerable position and legitimate fears these families experience. Colourful posters, translated into the languages of Parkdale, street theatre presentations, and dramatized case studies are planned.

Test case and political lobbying may follow, if the issue does not resolve. It is important to note, however, that a test case, or Charter challenge is not the first step. This kind of litigation is difficult to win and very costly on many levels.[95] Most importantly, however, it has little chance of success without a scrupulously documented factual foundation.[96] That foundation can only be constructed with the active cooperation of the families and the professionals affected.

This approach includes all of the elements advocated by Doug Ewart,[97] except that neither the health care system, the child welfare system, nor the immigration and refugee regime have incorporated solutions, or mechanisms to find solutions, to the issue at any of its levels. However, the literature is full of the long term failure of "legalization" strategies.[98] The long term success of community based strategies has also been questioned.[99] How then can one assess the efficacy of this approach in improving people's life chances? How does one measure its impact?

3.3 Seamless' Services and Measured Outcomes

First, this, or any other, approach must be "self conscious" and accountable to an internal set of standards of expectations derived from theory and experience. This type of accountability would assess a particular initiative against goals and standards established in advance. Second, one would look for an external measure, a way to answer Snider's challenge for a successful reform - have lives and life chances been improved?[100]

The health of populations - individuals, their families and communities - reflects a host of subtly interacting variables - social, political, economic, legal, cultural and historical, as well as biomedical. Of these poverty, and as a function of poverty, access to justice, has long been recognized by Health Canada and others as one of the most important. The stubborn persistence of a significant "health gap" between those living in poverty and those better off economically despite the existence of public health insurance has been well documented and continues to the present time (National Council on Welfare).[101] The inverse is also true. That is, health, provides a useful measure of the impact and value of the way that justice is accessed. Indeed, the predecessor to Health Canada, the Department of Health and Welfare, provided the initial funding for Parkdale Community Legal Services in recognition of that relationship.[102]

Health is an aspect of the human condition that we have learned to measure. Although one would never utilize a blind study or other similar measure with the lives of children at stake, comparisons and comparative data are readily available. What, for example, are the costs to individuals and to society when the health of some is sacrificed? That answer is well known - we all suffer.[103] The "health" approach is an obvious one when it is health benefits that are at issue. However assessing the effectiveness of other strategies - from housing to consumer rights to social assistance in terms of the short and long term impacts on health has much to commend it. In any event, at a minimum one would look for the following standards for "seamless" services:

Projects must:

  1. locate and identify the relevant partners (both clients and agencies);
  2. set goals and a timetable;
  3. make regular progress reports and have points when strategy revision (internally and externally) is considered and decided;
  4. train and incorporate new students into the project each semester.

Each initiative needs to include:

  1. a strategy for building bridges and alliances with more influential groups - identifying who and how to reach them;
  2. a media strategy;
  3. a lobbying strategy;
  4. a litigation strategy - which needs to have an eye to the solicitor work, the initial litigation, and an appeal strategy including interveners.

Each strategy should include a role for academics and those who will "keep a record"; clients; other community partners as well as students, Community Legal Workers and lawyers (both solicitors and barristers). And, finally, each strategy would be held to the standard of whether or not it improved the life and life chances, and thus the health, of the individual, family and community in question.