Making publicly legal information accessible for individuals, businesses, and the Canadian economy

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Canada is a nation built on law. Canadians – and Canadian businesses – have a profound interest in understanding those laws, their personal and professional impact, and the obligations and rights inherent in them. 

At the Legal Information Society of Nova Scotia (LISNS) our mission is to enable Nova Scotians to access legal information, solve legal problems with informed choices, and act on their rights and responsibilities. We do this in a myriad of ways.

Helping people protect their financial health is a critical aspect of avoiding legal problems that can lead to a variety of problems that affect people and the economy. And this issue has become particularly relevant during the pandemic. LISNS is providing leadership for investors with the upcoming launch of an Investor Rights and Protection Guide. 

Another new project is helping to address the issue of sexual harassment in the 

workplace. We know that in Nova Scotia more than one-third of women have faced unwanted sexual behaviour at work, which is about twice as common as for men. Women who are racialized, are new to Canada, or who have a disability are even more likely to experience sexual harassment. Now thanks to a $2.4 million grant from Justice Canada – the largest project funding awarded – we are helping individuals and employers tackle this issue head on.  Through the delivery of free bystander awareness training and tools to employers and employee groups and training we are focused on eradicating sexual harassment in the workplace. 

Over the five years the Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Project will run, we will create a sexual harassment reporting app that is unique in Canada. It will provide access to critical resources for employees and employers, and it will permit anonymous reporting, which has been demonstrated to be of value to some victims. As well, the program includes a paid lawyer-referral and advice service. We are fortunate to have an amazing team of experts working on this project with leadership from Dr. Wayne MacKay a nationally recognized expert in human rights.

The unique aspect of LISNS Sexual Harassment Reporting App, will also build in a navigator component, matching individuals to counsellors and volunteers who work with women’s groups, shelters, and other organizations. What this means for employees is immeasurable. Employees who anonymously report sexual harassment can seek further support from a real person skilled in providing the right kind of support at the right time.  

App-propriate access to legal information

The Sexual Harassment Reporting App is not our first foray into the wonderful world of software program applications combined with personal connections. In 2016 we became the first organization in the country to develop a Wills App that lets users gather the information they need to prepare a will in Nova Scotia. It helps people decide what to put in their will or helps their lawyer do a will for them. At the end of the process users can save their work as a downloadable pdf and also have it sent to them by email. 

We are currently building on this initiative by launching a wills app that will actually enable users to produce a finished will. In April, our power of attorney app will also be expanded to enable a finished project again with navigator support available.  

This work in many ways builds on our Personal Directive App, among the first in the country when launched in 2019. It was developed in partnership and with funding from Professor Jocelyn Downie, a leading expert in elder law. This web-based application allows users to create a finished document that they can save and sign digitally. Now, we’ve gone on to launch the first of the navigator programs which encourages people to make a personal directive and to be able to receive help from trained community volunteers. LISNS has developed an innovative online matching platform to automatically connect people (navigator.legalinfo.org).This program has been tested with a broad group of seniors and newcomers. The federal government was so impressed with the concept that it provided funding to LISNS for the Seniors’ Navigator Program as a designated COVID Response program to encourage and support seniors creating these legal documents and providing volunteer help. We are proud to have the Retired Teachers’ Organization – Nova Scotia as partners on this work.

We know the word is getting out about these and other initiatives. Each time we have undertaken specific public promotion and done media interviews we have tended to experience a 349.5% increase in views and a 23% increase in completions of the Personal Directive App.  

Self-represented litigants in Nova Scotia’s small claims court have also received a big boost. LISNS, in partnership with the court, launched a navigator program to help individuals wend their way through the system and have support throughout the judicial process. The program goes beyond providing booklets and online material. It works more like a buddy system. Navigators, who are all volunteers, can attend court with self-represented litigants (where pandemic possible) as a form of support. They can also assist with court preparation, gathering evidence, filing forms, and accessing legal information. 

In addition, LISNS developed the Small Claims Court App in 2017 to assist people with their cases. It contains information on determining if small claims court is the best option for someone, how to start a claim, how to defend a claim, and presenting a case in court. The only one of its kind in Canada, the app is being made available by the Courts of Nova Scotia in their online Small Claims Court form. This was made possible once self-guided videos were embedded in the app. There are 19 videos, developed by Julien Matte, an award winning litigation lawyer that guide self-represented litigants through the small claims court process.

A helping hand in a pandemic

Interest in our apps has been high from the outset, but COVID-19 has amplified the ongoing need to access information, particularly legal information, virtually. Interest and activity have grown exponentially during the pandemic. Healthcare providers and others, for example, have told us the launch of the Personal Directive App in the heart of the pandemic is providing an important public service and planning tool with people not being able to have someone accompany them if going to hospital. In fact, the Personal Directive App and linked information was the most visited part of our website during the initial COVID-19 closure period.  

The law has always been important to our lives and our businesses, but the pandemic has underscored just how pervasive and important it is. The restrictive public health measures, based in laws that most of us likely never thought we’d see invoked in our lifetimes, are a delicate balancing act between infringing on individual rights and reasonable limits on those rights that put the public good first. Laws dealing with every aspect of our everyday lives – work, business, investments, insurance, leisure, family violence, human rights, and more – have been highlighted and laid bare by the pandemic. COVID-19 has driven home the importance of public legal education.

Public legal education across Canada

While this article has focused on the work LISNS does in Nova Scotia, there are public legal education organizations from coast to coast doing important work and leading innovation to help the individuals, families, and businesses in their communities. 

The Public Legal Education Association of Canada, which represents public legal education organizations in Canada, is part of an exciting project being run by the Cyberjustice Laboratory at the University of Montreal called Autonomy through Cyberjustice Technologies, or ACT. The research partnership is unique in the field of artificial intelligence and cyberjustice and its aim is to improve conflict prevention and resolution.

The bottom line

Helping citizens understand and act on their legal rights and responsibilities enhances the lives of individuals, families, workplaces, and communities. It also has significant economic value. Quite simply, helping people address conflict effectively and make sound legal choices is a boon to the economy.

Connecting with people in a personal way is at the heart of LISNS service delivery through qualified lawyers who directly help the public by legal hotline, livechat, and email. We compliment that direct connection through our apps and programs with community volunteers who wish to help their communities. As a non-profit organization, LISNS must also ensure its operations are efficient and effective. We rely on sound business principles to do that and use sustainable strategies. Like any successful enterprise, we require a clear vision and a well-defined strategy with measurable deliverables. Equally important: flexibility, ingenuity, and the power of partnership to achieve our goal of delivering access to justice for the public good.  

Heather de Berdt Romilly, BComm., LLB, LLM is the Executive Director of the Legal Information Society of Nova Scotia (LISNS), www.legalinfo.org

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