How do poverty and the law intersect?

21 January 2021

My work at Vibrant Communities Calgary has introduced me to a number of Enough for All Champions who are working to reduce poverty in Calgary.

I don’t know about you, but there are so many things I hadn’t considered when it comes to access. Everything from how an e-scooter prevents a wheelchair from getting by on the sidewalk to knowing that you can call or visit 211 to learn about community and social services (including mental health supports) to needing support to understand legal forms as the use of plain language is still evolving.

Poverty and the justice system

One of my first introductions to the Enough for All Champions network was with the Justice Sector Constellation whose work relates to the Enough for All justice lever of change. They work to improve access to the justice system and are creating space to talk about changes that need to happen within the system, helping to move the needle on poverty reduction.

The Constellation is a collective impact initiative that focuses on three primary areas:

  • Improving access to justice sector resources and services
  • Improving coordination of services within the justice sector
  • Helping Albertans understand and address their legal issues

The Constellation educates and engages Albertans in the many ways poverty and the legal system intersect. Here are a few examples:

Notable impact through education

While the Constellation is working on a number of projects, one that is making a real impact is the Poverty and the Law: Expanding Perspectives module. The module was piloted with a number of post-secondary institutions in Calgary and is being incorporated into courses throughout the city.

The module is accessible to anyone and parts of it have been included in the bar exam for lawyers in Alberta and other provinces.

Many who have completed the module are students across a variety of disciplines including Criminal Justice, Early Learning Childhood Education, Commerce and Business. Participants indicate an increased understanding of the causes and impacts of poverty, and how social, health and psychological factors affect a person’s access to legal services.

One participant said, “People often see the ‘person’ as the problem but really it's a number of things that can impact a person and cause them to fall into poverty. This was always my point of view and now that has changed. I'll have a better understanding of what my future clients are going through and how I may guide them to legal services.”

Form literacy, how does that help with legal issues?

Another initiative the Constellation is working on concerns form literacy. Legal forms can be complicated and difficult to understand. This project aims to make legal forms easier to find and understand, while also identifying avenues of support that will make filling out legal forms more accessible.

Consider the catch-22 of how living in poverty can lead to legal issues and how having legal issues can lead to poverty

Picture a Calgary family living in or on the verge of poverty. What if their landlord raises their rent by 20 per cent without notice or one of the children is arrested for shoplifting or the parent tries to save money going to work and receives a fine for riding transit without paying a fare?

What happens to a two-parent family, not living in poverty, if the relationship of the parents falls apart and they now have to pay for two separate households as well as the legal costs of separation and divorce?

What would it cost these families in time and money to deal with these legal issues, and could they afford that time and money? Would they know where to go for help? What would they do? What would you do?

There are various answers and approaches to the questions above. What is clear is that Calgarians need the knowledge, resources and capability to understand and address their legal issues and deserve a legal system that does not contribute to or cause poverty. 

The Constellation’s mission is to intervene at the intersection of poverty and the legal system so that everyone facing a legal issue can access the justice sector resources and services they need. Their broader vision is a community where the legal system does not contribute to or perpetuate poverty, and each person has the knowledge, resources and capability to understand and address their legal issues.

If you’re interested in the connections between poverty and the law, complete the module or get in touch with the Justice Sector Constellation. Also, learn more about how you can get involved with Enough for All here.