Establish, enhance, engage: reflections on a libraries and justice partnerships event

Accessing the justice system is challenging in numerous ways, particularly in rural and remote communities where the digital divide and sheer geographic distance are major barriers. In contrast, libraries in rural and remote locations are effective access points not only for information but also for programs that reflect community specific needs.

This was the starting point for TAG – The Action Group on Access to Justice, Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO), the Community Advocacy & Legal Centre (CALC) and the Boldness Project Rural and Remote Access to Justice as hosts of “Libraries and Justice: Innovative Access for Rural and Remote Communities.” This full day event explored ways for libraries and justice organizations to work together to deliver legal information to people living outside of large urban centres.

This is a graphic recording of a conference on libraries and justice initiatives held in Toronto in October 2015.

Graphic created by Diisa Kauk of Thinklink Graphics in October 2015

Our motivations were simple – increase awareness of existing good work and provide an opportunity to establish or enhance partnerships. Although our hopes were high we really weren’t sure what to expect. What happens when you bring together rural and remote community focused representatives from various legal clinics, the Supreme Court of Canada, courthouse libraries, public libraries and universities? As we learned, quite a lot!

Seventy-five people came to the event from various places including Owen Sound, Brantford, Belleville and Stratford. The program was divided into two parts – inspiration in the morning and action in the afternoon.

Photo courtesy of the Action Group on Access to Justice

Photo courtesy of the Action Group on Access to Justice

The day began with a stirring call to action by Chris Bentley (Executive Director of Ryerson University’s Legal Innovation Zone) that highlighted the tremendous trust that communities put in their librarians. Later in the morning, participants heard from Janet Freeman (Community Outreach Librarian at Courthouse Libraries BC) about ground breaking work in her province, most notably the Law Matters Program which provides substantial access to justice resources and training support for public libraries.

The morning session also featured a panel discussion that illuminated the challenges and successes of library-focused access to justice efforts from CLEO, CALC, the Quinte West Public Library and the Belleville Public Library.

Kathy Manners, a rural and remote community based access to justice facilitator, led us through the afternoon breakout sessions. They considered questions such as:

  • what are the conditions and needs that are going unmet?
  • what problem are you trying to solve?
  • what resources do you need to get your ideas off the ground?
  • who needs to be involved and how would you engage them?

Photo courtesy of the Action Group on Access to Justice.

Photo courtesy of the Action Group on Access to Justice.

The responses to these questions brought the key findings from Karen Cohl and George Thomson’s report, Connecting Across Language and Distance, to life – access to justice in rural and remote communities requires a clear path to the people and services that can provide help. This involves ensuring that librarians, as the common starting point for information, have the necessary training and resources required to direct the public towards credible legal information and, when appropriate, produce quality referrals.

sabreena tweet

A graphic recorder was in attendance to capture the discussion. As the day unfolded, four blank panels were transformed into an illustration of current access to justice contributions and opportunities for collaboration.

graphic recorder draft

Other takeaways from the day were simple but effective – many libraries learned about CLEO resources for the first time and were eager to bookmark relevant pages on their computers. In addition, connections between legal clinics and libraries in the same town that did not exist before were now established – as was the case for our Stratford participants.

What is even more encouraging are the responses that we are receiving to the evaluation that we sent to attendees after the event. We are currently reviewing the feedback and look forward to sharing it along with updates about work that spins out of this event in future posts.

We are grateful to all the participants for bringing such commitment and energy to “Libraries and Justice: Innovative Access for Rural and Remote Communities.” View pictures from the day here and find a great blog post about the event from the Southern Ontario Library Service here.

Sabreena Delhon is the Manager of the Action Group on Access to Justice (TAG) at the Law Society of Upper Canada. Follow her on Twitter @sabreenadelhon.

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