Those living with low-income and in need of legal advice can seek help at Edmonton Community Legal Centre (ECLC).
“There are all kinds of factors that make it difficult to hire a lawyer or navigate the justice system,” said Debbie Klein, executive director of ECLC.
The organization doesn’t handle criminal law, but addresses all others, especially family law and civil law. Employment and landlord-tenant concerns are fairly prevalent. ECLC has been operating for 15 years and meshes well with similar organizations like Legal Aid and Legal Student Services.
Klein couldn’t disclose the income threshold they use to accept clients, in part because they review those numbers periodically. “We look at markers like minimum wage, Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH), and Low Income Cut Off (LICO),” she said, but added,
“Regardless of your income level, you can call us. We will steer you in the right direction.”
Staff members take calls from people who can’t afford or aren’t eligible to hire a lawyer and either refer the caller to an appropriate resource or schedule an appointment with one of the lawyers who volunteer there, who will then provide free legal advice. In most cases, this advice involves explaining the next step rather than representing an individual.
A non-profit organization, ECLC depends mostly on volunteers and non-government funding to operate. They have 300 volunteers, some of whom are lawyers and law students, and 17 staff members. Ten of its 17 staff members follow up with clients and four lawyers represent people. They also have an immigration consultant on staff.
While the organization assists people in varying degrees, due to funding they can only represent 10-15 per cent of clients. Even then, ECLC doesn’t promise to represent a client until the end. “We open files for cases that have merit and when the client is unlikely to have the capacity to pursue on their own,” said Klein. For example, if someone is being evicted unjustly, ECLC might be able to at least delay the eviction until the client can find another place to live.
This year, there’s been a 44 per cent increase in calls. Klein credits the jump to the downturn in the economy.
“They’re calling about being sued, evicted,” Klein said, and explained these callers “tend to be more in a panic than people who struggle with [financial distress] all the time. They’re not used to not paying their bills.”
The organization also provides free public legal education on a weekly basis. Currently held at Stanley Milner Library, the weekly sessions focus on a variety of law topics such family law and civil law.
“Part of our mandate is educating people about legal rights and responsibilities. We encourage people to attend those sessions even if they have an appointment,” said Klein, explaining people can get information at the session and then ask the lawyer more specific questions during an appointment.
Funding is a constant issue, especially with the increased demand. “We’re always in need of more lawyers to volunteer,” Klein said. “What we’re able to do is limited by people available to do it.”
For more information, go to www.eclc.ca or call 780.702.1725.