For many people, navigating the Canadian justice system can be
overwhelming, but for some clients at Toronto’s Fred Victor 24-Hour
Women’s Drop-in, it can feel hopeless. The Women’s Justice Access Project,
a collaborative effort between CAMH’s Provincial System Support Program
(PSSP) and 10 community partners, is working to change that by bringing
free legal supports to the drop-in.
“You have certain legal problems and you reach a certain stage, but you have no hope,” says Beryl,
a client at the drop-in. “It’s too much stress to go through when you
are alone. You don’t have anyone at your back.” The women sitting on
either side of her, also clients at Fred Victor, nod in agreement.
Ren (left), Beryl and Linda are clients at the Fred Victor Women’s Drop in Centre.
Low-income, racialized, senior women are among some of the most
marginalized populations in the city, which makes accessing legal
services difficult. Legal expenses notwithstanding, marginalized
populations can face additional systemic barriers related to past
“Traumatic encounters and discrimination have contributed to a mistrust of formal structures like government,” says Nicole Nosworthy, Regional Implementation Coordinator. “Mental health and addictions issues can also increase the intensity of challenges.”
the other hand, practical barriers like travelling to appointments or
accessing services in their language create added stress and
That means many are left to fend for themselves
when it comes to basic legal rights, immigration issues, housing
problems or landlord disputes, to name a few.
The Women’s Justice
Access Project has partnered the drop-in centre with legal supports in
the community and students at Downtown Legal Services. The project
focuses its programming on the self-identified needs of a variety of
clients at Fred Victor, for example, south-east Asian seniors. In this
case, lawyers and law students travel to the centre and offer a spectrum
of services in both English and Mandarin, from basic education of the
Canadian justice system, issues that might require justice support, to
one-on-one legal advice.
The Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast
Asian Legal Clinic (MTCSALC) is funded by Legal Aid Ontario to serve
low income, non-English speaking clients from the Chinese, Vietnamese,
Laotian and Cambodian communities in Toronto. Lawyer Vincent Wong,
MTCSALC, says he “feels a certain obligation to help people know their
legal rights and access legal solutions, who otherwise would not be able
For Linda, having someone to explain the justice system in her language makes a significant difference.
coming in and speaking our language is very important. We can
understand. We feel respect and feel stronger, not lonely. They can help
us and it gives us confidence,” she explains.
Some outcomes of
the project are truly heart-warming. One woman was able to return home
to her family after receiving help through the project to sort out
“Now I can go home and see my family thanks to
you and Downtown Legal Services,” she said in an email to her lawyer.
“I can’t tell you how I appreciate your work for me. I know it is hard
to get this result. You really did best [sic] job for me.”
members are not the only ones learning more every month; Community Legal
Education Ontario and METRAC train staff on a variety of topics,
including how to identify when a client might need legal support.
women talk to us about this stuff all the time. The law is so
complicated-- it’s great to have those contacts in the community, and
someone you can refer to in this situation,” says Oriana Sinicropi, a program staff member at Fred Victor.
GTA Regional Implementation Team has been working hard to establish
those critical partnerships, acting as mediators between the worlds of
justice and mental health and addictions. They also approached justice
partners like HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic and the Centre for Equality
Rights and Accommodation to negotiate options to bring culturally and
linguistically appropriate services to safe spaces like the drop-in. Now
the team is working to evaluate the partnerships, making sure they fit
well and meet the legal needs of the women.
For Vincent Wong, the
synergy between legal professionals and the rest of the social service
sector is clear, but he notes there is room to do more across the board
from adequate and affordable housing to proper mental health supports
and systemic inequities.
“Legal clinics as well as the pro bono
bar need to better recognize these opportunities and work together to
tackle some of most challenging and urgent societal problems among
Published May 30, 2017