B.C. legal aid navigators connect clients to ‘wraparound’ services

B.C. legal aid navigators connect clients to ‘wraparound’ services

Often the “first friendly face” someone entering the court system sees, newly hired legal aid navigators help connect clients to health, housing and social supports.

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Michael Bryant compares the panic that sets in during a brush with the legal system to losing your wallet — multiplied by 100.

Being arrested and incarcerated is “one hell of an experience,” says the CEO of Legal Aid B.C.

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Bryant’s own exposure to the legal system, both as the former Attorney General of Ontario and as someone who has faced charges in the past, has informed a new Legal Aid B.C. program aimed at helping people find their footing in a crisis.

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The navigators program, launched in September, helps people understand the court system, in addition to providing extra support for those who need it, such as connecting them with health care, addiction treatment or shelter.

Bryant said the legal system is “not built for civilians.”

In 2009, he was charged with dangerous driving causing death after an encounter with a cyclist on a Toronto street. The charges were dropped nine months later, but the experience changed his perspective on the courts.

“I was overwhelmed by fear,” he said. “If I, the ultimate insider, find this terrifying, what’s it like for everyone else?”

After taking the top job at Legal Aid B.C. last January, Bryant said his focus has been on people.

Michael Bryant and Legal Aid B.C.
Legal Aid B.C. CEO Michael Bryant. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

Since September, Legal Aid B.C. has employed 11 “navigators” using a grant provided by the Law Foundation. The funding, which can’t be used for legal fees, was previously spent on pamphlets and other printed materials that informed clients of various social programs. Now, navigators provide clients with the same information — and much more.

Using a network of social service agencies, the navigators help connect people to shelter, food, clothing, transportation and health care, as well as ensure they have a way to stay in contact with their lawyer and don’t miss a court date. They might call someone to check in and see how they are doing, or connect them to victim’s services, as many people in the legal system have at one time been victims themselves.

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Level 1 navigators help clients with immediate, short-term needs and help them navigate the court system. Level 2 navigators work with clients with “complex, multidisciplinary or intersecting needs,” and may also help connect them to social services that can find housing or a treatment bed for them.

Bryant said the program helps get at the heart of some of the social problems that contribute to people ending up in the legal system. He gave the example of a client who doesn’t have housing or transportation and, as a result, misses a court hearing. The breach can result in a warrant and land them back in jail.

Complex clients, including those with mental illness or addictions, are in particular need of a navigator to help them participate in a legal system that “presumes a level of competence that not everyone has,” he said.

So far, the program has helped 400 people, many of them facing criminal charges, but also 140 refugee claimants, 40 people facing intimate-partner violence, and 100 people who self-identified as having special needs.

“We are often the first friendly face for a criminal defendant,” he said.

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Legal Aid B.C. office
Legal Aid B.C. has hired several “navigators,” including Kelly Davies and Jean Reyes, as part of a new program to help people using their services to access other wraparound supports. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

Navigator Kelly Davies describes her role as “between the lawyers and clients.”

“We are the people listening,” she said. “Sometimes bail conditions are not explained well, and I help to explain them.”

In her role as an advocate, Davies and her team have “created a community of connections” with different organizations in Vancouver, she said. “So if someone says I don’t have a place to sleep tonight I know who to call.”

Navigator Jean Reyes is a former legal aid client himself.

“I don’t think I could have made it without them,” he said.

Originally from the Dominican Republic, he is focused on helping refugee claimants who are Legal Aid B.C. clients.

“Most of the time, refugee claimants are looking for someone who is kind and willing to listen,” he said.

Some are traumatized by their experience, and while Reyes can’t provide counselling, he knows how to help people access it.

Created in 1979, Legal Aid B.C. provides legal information, advice, and representation services. Its priority is to serve the interests of people experiencing barriers accessing the legal system.

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Feedback for the the navigator program has been positive, said Bryant. It will continue to be evaluated through client surveys, with those going through a family law case asked if they feel safer and more autonomous as a result of the navigators’ assistance. In criminal cases, data will be gathered to understand if it the program contributed to less bail breaches and missed court dates. Refugee cases will be assessed to see if it helped with claims.

Bryant said people often come to the legal aid office after being told to “get a lawyer.” The hope is that the cliched, tossed-off piece of advice will come to mean much more.

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