In Praise of Video in a Legal Clinic

Jack Fleming

Video conferencing is a readily available, inexpensive tool which can be used by legal clinics to increase efficiency and reach more clients. North Peel & Dufferin Community Legal Services is a community legal clinic located in Brampton, Ontario (near Toronto). Brampton is large city (the fourth largest in Ontario), growing at an explosive rate, with half of the population born outside of Canada. However, our legal clinic also serves Dufferin County, about 1,500 square kilometres of rural land and small towns. We have found video to be a useful tool for both settings.

When social assistance cases are litigated in Ontario, they are heard by the Social Benefits Tribunal (the SBT). When the SBT started piloting video hearings, we joined the project (following the lead of Rexdale Community Legal Clinic). The results were very positive and we now do almost all of our SBT hearings by video. 

For our clients, an SBT hearing used to mean going to an unfamiliar location, which could entail getting lost or arriving late. It would also often mean arranging for specialized transport (for physically disabled clients). As well, the client would be sitting in a room with strangers (the adjudicator and the advocate for the social assistance program). With video hearings, our clients go to a familiar and welcoming environment (our office). Most of our clients have mental health issues and a hearing determining eligibility for social assistance is very stressful. Coming to our legal clinic for the hearing greatly reduces the stress. Additionally, others involved are not in the room – they are images on a computer screen. We have found that this makes clients more comfortable and often means that they do better in giving their evidence. 

For the caseworkers, video hearings mean big savings in travel time. And there are further time savings. For in person SBT hearings, a case is scheduled for the morning or the afternoon block and we do not know when during that time slot the case will actually be heard. Caseworkers can spend a lot of time cooling their heels. With video hearings, the exact time of the hearing is scheduled.

Technically, the requirements are simple. We first started doing this with lawyers and paralegals using their laptops in their offices. When we moved into new office space, we included in the plans two video-conferencing rooms. These have a 55” computer monitor mounted on the wall and a computer under a table. When seated at the table in the room, the images on the screen are at the same level – effectively sitting across the table from us. A webcam is mounted just above the monitor, so that when the clinic caseworker and client are looking at the monitor, they are also facing the webcam. A control on the table allows the direction of the webcam to be moved if necessary. We also have a polycom conference phone on the table as some video conferencing solutions use telephone audio. A softbox light in the room boosts the lighting, showing the client and caseworker more favourably than overhead fluorescent lighting. Finally, an ‘on air’ light outside the room warns others that it is in use, so the door should not be opened. 

The cost of all of this is not high – the most expensive part is the office real estate (these rooms are approximately 8’x10’). We found video conferencing to be a useful enough tool to be worth the investment, but it can be done just using the laptop that you already use for your work, with no additional investment. We have used a variety of software. The SBT uses Adobe Connect, we have otherwise mostly used Google Hangouts, and soon we expect to shift to Skype for Business.

Video is also useful for connecting with clients. We meet with clients in Orangeville, the largest town in Dufferin County, as needed. That is a 30-45 minute drive each way – potentially an hour and a half in travel time to see a client. We partnered with an agency which had a permanent presence in Orangeville and we left a tablet at their office. When we wanted to have a video conference meeting with a client, this agency would sit the client down with the tablet so that we could meet without the travel time. At first, we were sceptical of how clients would react to this but our experience was that generally they were perfectly fine with video meetings and definitely preferred them to telephone calls. Meetings could also be scheduled more quickly. 

Our legal clinic does not practice workers’ compensation law. Several legal clinics in Toronto specialize in that area but it can be difficult for an injured worker to travel into Toronto. We have partnered with one such specialty clinic, the Industrial Accident Victims’ Group of Ontario (IAVGO), to provide a video link for injured workers in our area. They can meet with a caseworker from IAVGO using one of our video conferencing rooms, without the necessity of travelling to Toronto.

We are about to start a pilot project with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in Brampton, providing a bi-weekly clinic at their location for clients who do not feel comfortable going to another agency for help. However, we did not want to send a caseworker; our lawyers and paralegals are specialized in specific areas of the law and also we did not want to have a caseworker sitting around if there was a lag in appointments. We are going to try sending one of our client service representatives (these are social workers who do the initial intakes at our office) with a laptop which can be used to set up a video link with the appropriate caseworker back at the office.

We have found that almost all of our clients are comfortable with video hearings or video meetings and often they prefer them. However, it is not for everyone. If a client prefers to do things in person, that is what we do. With a minimal investment, we have found that video conferencing can allow us to more efficiently use our scarce resources (primarily caseworker time) and reach more clients. A future goal is to explore video links with clients on their cell phones, eliminating the need for us to provide technology on that end.

Jack Fleming is executive director of Ontario’s North Peel & Dufferin Community Legal Service

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