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Law Van returns to dispense legal advice to rural communities

Free legal services rolls on thanks to a three-year funding commitment

The Law Van’s wheels are turning once again, delivering free legal advice to communities throughout Wellington County.

The initiative, offered by The Legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County, ran as a pilot project in 2019 and re-launched at the start of this month thanks to a three-year funding commitment from the Law Foundation of Ontario. 

“The strategy of taking legal services to people where they are is a really successful one for increasing access for folks who don’t necessarily have the means to connect with the clinic in Guelph,” said Lisa Cirillo, foundation CEO. “We were really excited by the promise of phase one.”

The van, which is staffed by an outreach worker and a lawyer, spends four days per week in a different Wellington County community, taking questions from whomever comes out in search of legal system guidance.

“We believe that the van is a great way to be in the community and for people to safely come and talk to us about their issues,” said Anthea Millikin, lawyer and clinic executive director, noting mask wearing and other COVID-19 protocols are in place. “Any way that reduces barriers for people getting help is important.

“Legal issues don’t stand still, they don’t stop for COVID. In fact, many of them are aggravated by COVID.”

In-person community visits run between May and November, with a “virtual van” providing services during winter months.

As well as providing legal advice on the spot regarding employment, housing issues, disputes and more, van workers strive to direct people toward other service providers specific to the person’s individual circumstances.

“A lot of the work at the van is about navigation,” said Millikin. “We can either provide you some direct advice and information … and we can also provide you with some suggestions as to how best to get some help.

“People appreciate having a bit of a road map in terms of what to do next.”

During the 2019 pilot project, which saw the van out in communities between May and October, nearly 500 people approached in search of advice, Millikin said, noting many of them had questions related to family law.

“We’re really working to see how we can reduce some of the barriers for people to access family law,” Millikin said. “We’re working with Legal Aid Ontario to look at how we can get more access to family law. We’re also working with the private bar (association) in terms of having local lawyers identify that they are able to take on legal aid certificates, able to help people who need this kind of help.”

Of those individuals, 87 per cent had no previous contact with the Legal Clinic of Guelph and Wellington County, with 82 per cent of people surveyed stating it was helpful, Millikin added.

“That just shows the value of this type of project,” she said.

The Law Van stops in Mount Forest (St. Mary of the Purification Roman Catholic Church) on Mondays, sets up in Arthur (parking lot behind Canada Post office) on Tuesdays, finds its way to Fergus (St. James Anglican Church) on Wednesdays and alternates between Palmerston (across from Norwell District Secondary School) and Clifford (parking lot at Allen and Elora streets intersection) on Thursdays.

It remains on site from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. each day.

During the pilot project, the van made its way to a number of other rural communities, but, as Millikin explained, a decision was made to focus on the communities that demonstrated the “deepest need and greatest demand” in 2019.

Plans are in the works to expand the service into Georgetown and Acton.