Have you ever opened your jewelry drawer and found that your fragile necklaces had all bunched up together in a complete tangle? It can take hours to unwind the mess. You follow one strand through the maze only to reach a dead end and have to start again with another piece.
That is similar to the situation in which some people find themselves if they are experiencing legal problems. Research has shown that people often struggle with a cluster of problems of different types. They may have a housing problem but that challenge results from debt issues, which are related also to medical or mental health concerns, relationship issues, child protection issues etc. The reality is a complex web of inter-related problems. If this person seeks help for their housing issue, it cannot be addressed without also identifying and seeking assistance for the other inter-related problems. Fortunately, there is help to begin unwinding the mess!
The Vancouver Justice Access Centre (VJAC) was officially opened in June 2010 in downtown Vancouver. It offers information and assistance to people with civil and family legal problems. People can call to make an appointment or walk in to seek help. They are seen first by a Justice Interviewer who begins the assessment process to clarify what help the person needs and makes a referral to either a Family Justice Counsellor (for family issues) or a Civil Resource Coordinator (for civil issues), both of whom are on site. For civil matters, the Civil Resource Coordinator listens carefully to understand the story and discern what information and assistance the person might require to untangle what are often very complex webs of problems, like those described above. Some people refer to this process as “triage”. This takes time and patience and excellent listening skills.
Once the problems are triaged, the Civil Resource Coordinator can make referrals to onsite services such as: Access Pro Bono or Salvation Army for free legal advice clinics; to Credit Counselling Society for debt problems; to Mediate BC Society for disputes that might benefit from mediation; to the Paralegal clinic for help filling in forms and so on, or to other offsite resources. The VJAC has done a great job of assembling a team of agencies who are working together to meet people’s needs – all in one place. Staff and agencies do team problem-solving when necessary.
I recently attended a gathering to celebrate the VJAC’s 2nd anniversary. We heard stories from each of the participating agencies – about their experiences helping people solve their problems. The stories were moving and profound. Like the brother and sister who hadn’t spoken for 8 years and, with encouragement, participated in a mediation to resolve the sale of family property.
Or the senior who came in wanting to sue the care facility where her husband resided. After taking the time to unwind her story it appeared that she had failed to file her tax returns, so the care facility was charging premium rates, she was forced to move into a trailer and couldn’t afford food. The problem she first described was not the conflict that needed to be addressed. She was referred for assistance in filing her tax returns, which led to a reduction in the amount she paid to the care facility and freed up her finances significantly.
Not everyone is able to solve all their problems with this service but they are given a respectful, listening ear and help to create a pathway towards their goals.
The VJAC vision is to be a hub of services to help citizens better navigate the BC justice system. It is really making a difference in the lives of BC citizens. Happy Birthday VJAC!! Time for cake!