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A week in the life of an outreach worker

Woman knitting

Our legal information outreach workers (LIOWs) work closely with legal aid clients in Vancouver, sharing legal information and resources with people who face many barriers to getting the legal help they need. In this story, Cathy describes a typical week in her life as an outreach worker in Vancouver.

 

A few years ago, I took knitting lessons. My projects have been basic: a few scarves, simple knitted toys and booties. Each time I complete a project, I marvel that I have taken a skein of yarn and turned it into something useful. With a pattern and a plan, the right needles, and enough yarn, I can create something. It’s the same when connecting clients to services; with the right resources, guidance and tools, I am able to assist others. 

I think of knitting when I’m asked to explain what (LIOWs) do at Legal Aid BC. Often, my default is to explain what we can’t do. We aren’t like the intake legal assistants who interview the clients applying for legal aid. We can’t give legal advice like lawyers, and we aren’t paralegals. The best way to describe our work is to walk you through a typical week.

Monday:

It’s my week at Vancouver Downtown Community Court (DCC). The in-custody duty counsel gives me a list of the overnight arrests and we discuss who I’ll need to assist with legal aid applications. Throughout the morning, duty counsel lets me know if any out-of-custody folks need help to apply for legal aid or need information. Around 10 am, I ask the sheriffs at the jail cells if a meeting room is available. I’m set up with a phone that connects to an intake legal assistant who will take the application. The first client is brought in.

Like many clients in custody, the person has multiple barriers, including mental health issues. This morning I see five clients in a row. After lunch, I have a shift on the LIOW phone line and assist walk-in clients. One of my calls is from a woman who has been “renovicted”. I give her the numbers for the Tenant Resource & Advisory CentreAccess Pro Bono, and a resource centre in her area where she may find an advocate, as she has difficulty dealing with paperwork. I meet with a walk-in client; a young woman who has been terminated from her job, accused of “time theft”. She is upset and determined to prove it is a misunderstanding. She leaves with resources for free legal advice. 

Tuesday:

At DCC this morning, one of the overnight arrest clients is very angry when he sits across from me; he refuses to speak to anyone over the phone. He shouts that the process is a waste of time, he has been in and out of prison since he was 16 (he is now in his mid-20s). He insists that he knows the system and doesn’t need any help. Eventually, the client decides that applying for legal aid will make things easier, and agrees for me to be the go-between. I repeat the intake legal assistant’s questions to him, and he signs a Release of Information (ROI) form with an angry flourish. Before leaving, he turns back to face me and emphatically shouts his thanks.  

Wednesday:

DCC is really busy. Duty counsel asks me to meet with an out-of-custody client. Like many of our DCC clients, this person has multiple barriers, including drug addiction. She is struggling to stay awake. I tap her foot to check in with her when she dozes off. She manages to talk to the intake legal assistant and sign an ROI. The client has no fixed address, but there is a spot at a treatment facility she hopes to get into. I remind her to discuss that with her lawyer. 

Thursday:

It’s a steady morning at DCC. In the evening, I’ve been invited to talk with Battered Women’s Support Services volunteers who have just completed their crisis line training. It’s an informal pizza evening so I hand out packages filled with our publications and lists of resources. After my presentation on legal aid services, I answer their questions. 

Friday:

At DCC, the client already has a lawyer who has applied for a Gladue report on his behalf. His friend asks for more information, and I give him one of the Gladue publications from the rack of legal aid brochures outside the courtroom. It’s a great foundation tool for our discussion. LIOWs keep the racks stocked at the office, DCC, and the New Westminster Courthouse, where we attend First Nations Court monthly.

Back at the office, I meet with a walk-in client. A shy woman in her 60s asks for help to write a will. She is ashamed that she and her husband don’t have one, and thinks it’s foolish to have waited so long. She says they don’t have much; their children are adults, but not having a will causes her anxiety. On my laptop, we navigate MyLawBC where she and her husband may be able to create their own will for free. We also visit the People’s Law School website, where there’s a notice of an upcoming free session on wills and estates at the library. The woman reaches across the desk and grasps my hand. She tells me she has peace of mind now. 

This brings me back to knitting. Casting on, trying various designs, and following different patterns; sometimes I make mistakes and have to unravel and start again. But like outreach work, knitting takes basic and repeated skills, and with those few stitches, there can be profound and unexpected variations.


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