Technology and a low-income rural population: a Canadian legal clinic’s experience

Melinda Rees

This article is about the use of video-conferencing technology to permit cost-effective service to a low-income, rural population. It is not a discussion about the technology itself – the focus is on how a community legal clinic learned to use a simple tool to reach its low-income clients. 

The Peterborough Community Legal Centre has a catchment area that includes the City and County of Peterborough. The overall population is about 136,000 with approximately 81,000 living in the City and about 55,000 living in the County. The area has been hollowed out economically. Once an important manufacturing centre with a bustling railway network throughout the County, it is now characterised by high unemployment, low wages, low vacancies and high rents. The railways have gone and public transit is limited to the City. 

Our catchment area includes the County. Unfortunately, our funding does not permit us to establish satellite offices outside of the City of Peterborough and we simply cannot afford the mileage costs for visits to clients in the County. We have struggled to find a solution to this service delivery conundrum for many years. 

We have tended to prioritise serving the community of Havelock (in the County of Peterborough, pop: approx. 1700) because Havelock has a high concentration of low-income people. We reasoned that if we could make service delivery feasible in Havelock, we could apply that model anywhere in our catchment area.

Our non-technologically based attempts involved trying to find free accommodation in Havelock for a once/week walk-in clinic. We were offered free space in the local welfare office – this didn’t work because the welfare office was a frequent adversary. Our clients didn’t want to be seen by their caseworkers attending our walk-in sessions. We tried space in a community based employment office run by volunteers on a shoe string budget. This worked a little bit better but suffered from three major deficiencies: firstly, our physical presence in the community was very limited. Twenty-nine years in Peterborough have taught us that our rural clients like to have the opportunity to reconnoitre before they commit to coming in for help. They are very concerned about privacy. They require flexibility in scheduling – they may have to rely on neighbours or hitchhiking to get into town. 

Secondly, our small staff could not afford to send a caseworker from our City office (which is overwhelmed by demand) to wait around in Havelock for a client to wander in. Finally, we soon used up our tiny mileage budget. 

The problems we were facing in trying to serve Havelock and similar locations in the County were not unique to us. Almost all of our community partners serving low-income people in Peterborough shared a similar mandate and inadequate funding to fulfill it. A few years ago, we got together to seek a better way of doing things.  We created something called the “Havelock Collaborative” and got funding from the municipality to operate a “community hub” with a paid on-site coordinator, donated space (at a neutral location) and Skype access to our various offices in the City of Peterborough – essentially a virtual satellite office made possible by video conferencing technology and project funding. 

It is important to understand that if that was all it was, a virtual office with a link, it probably wouldn’t have worked as well as it did. What made it work was the on-site coordinator. We were careful to hire a local person who was well known in Havelock for her involvement and leadership in various grass-roots social justice projects. She understood the social and legal needs of the community and had an excellent knowledge of available resources in the County and City. She acted as a ‘trusted intermediary’ for the Collaborative’s member agencies – community based, well respected, able to maintain confidentiality and able to identify potential issues and make appropriate referrals. She was present on a regular and predictable basis to answer questions and promote the service. Oh, and she also ran the Skype link (in a private room) and could scan documents to us for review while we talked to the client and provided advice or made arrangements to take on representation. 

The technology certainly allowed us to connect with our clients in very cost effective way. But the project worked because it was community based, used a trusted intermediary in the community, had a human interface to overcome technological barriers (lack of computers, computer skills, cell phones and internet services) and was not a self-help service. The only thing it lacked was core funding. Just as we got going, the project funding ran out. 

Melinda Rees is Executive Director of the Peterborough Community Legal Centre

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