Bridging the Justice Gap: How the ECLC is Empowering Underserved Albertans

Ask An Expert: ECLC, Debbie Klein

By Brittany Koenig, Business Development Manager

At the forefront of breaking down systemic barriers and ensuring access to justice, the Edmonton Community Legal Centre (the ECLC) has dedicated 22 years to empowering the communities of Greater Edmonton and Northern Alberta. Their core mission: to provide free legal services to marginalized people.

With a solutions-focused approach rooted in justice, community, accessibility, and accountability, they offer free legal advice, information, referrals, and support in a wide-range of areas, including family law, employment and more. Amidst a 30% surge in intake calls from 2023—a testament to the lingering financial and emotional aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic—the ECLC’s services have never been more vital.

We recently had the privilege of speaking with Debbie Klein, the dynamic executive director of the ECLC who has been leading the charge for the past 15-years. With a career dedicated to enhancing access to justice, Debbie shared invaluable insights into the ECLC's innovative strategies and the profound impact of their work on the community.

Join us as we delve into the critical role the Edmonton Community Legal Centre plays in connecting Edmonton and Northern Alberta residents with essential legal services, bridging the gap between community needs and justice.

Brittany: For many of our Coach My Case clients, figuring out who they can turn to for support is often one of the most challenging parts of their journey. Many people find themselves in a difficult position, earning too much to qualify for subsidized services but not enough to afford hiring a lawyer independently. This gap in the legal system leaves a significant portion of our community in a precarious situation, seeking accessible legal advice and support that aligns with their financial realities.

Can you explain the eligibility criteria that clients must meet to receive support from ECLC?

Debbie: The ECLC is primarily a free legal information and referral agency, available to those living in the Greater Edmonton area and throughout Northern Alberta. We provide these services to anyone and everyone who contacts us - even if they are not financially eligible for a clinic appointment.

Free legal advice is provided to those who are economically disadvantaged, which is largely determined by household income. However, it is important to note that we do take a holistic approach when assessing eligibility – it is not solely based on the numbers.

Brittany: There are several legal clinics and centres throughout Alberta. What differentiates the ECLC from those other services?

Debbie: The main difference is that the ECLC does not offer services in criminal law.

All Alberta community legal clinics have a similar service delivery model, which includes volunteer lawyers providing free legal advice. Staff lawyers also collaborate with professional staff who have complementary backgrounds. This multidisciplinary approach ensures that our clients' legal issues are addressed within the wider context of their personal situations.

Brittany: Can you elaborate on what legal coaching looks like at ECLC and what it involves?

Debbie: For those who are eligible, we provide free legal advice and legal coaching services via a one-on-one appointment with a lawyer or articling student. The primary goal of these sessions is to empower our clients with a thorough understanding of their legal rights and responsibilities. We guide them through their available legal options, discussing the advantages and disadvantages of each to facilitate informed decision-making. This approach ensures clients are well-prepared to pursue the most suitable legal path for their situation. For those clients who are ready to take action, our legal coaching services equip them with the necessary knowledge and confidence to proceed independently with their legal matters.

Brittany: I understand that, on average, the ECLC can only represent about 10-15% of clients. How do you prioritize which cases to take on?

Debbie: When deciding which cases to take on for additional services, priority is given to those clients who are unlikely to be successful in advocating for themselves. This approach ensures that our resources are directed toward those who are most in need of our support to navigate the legal system successfully. At the end of the day, the ECLC is first and foremost a legal information and referral agency, with 38,000 client contacts in 2023. Free legal advice is provided to 2,500 people annually, and of these, about 10% receive additional services from staff lawyers, which may include legal representation.

Brittany: Can you elaborate on how economic downturns affect the nature of legal issues your clients are facing?

Debbie: Economic downturns significantly influence the demand for our services, as they leave more people without the financial means to hire private legal representation. These periods of financial instability add layers of stress to individuals and families already under pressure from household expenses. This stress can escalate into a variety of legal problems, including accumulating debt, defaulting on rent, mortgage, and child support payments, and strained marital and employment relationships. Additionally, the repercussions of economic downturns extend to landlords and employers, who may face their own challenges like needing to lay off staff or struggling to maintain rental properties. Essentially, economic downturns create a ripple effect, exacerbating existing vulnerabilities and introducing new legal challenges for our clients.

Brittany: Can you share any new service offerings or methods of outreach in the pipeline to meet this increase in demand?

Debbie: We've introduced the Consumer Debt Negotiation Project, a new initiative designed to support individuals facing foreclosure or grappling with significant debt issues. Recognizing the importance of community collaboration, we're also actively engaged with community agency service providers. Our goal is to ensure they are aware of our services, so they can direct those in need of legal assistance to the ECLC. This approach not only extends our reach but also enhances our ability to respond effectively to the growing demand for legal support from marginalized people.

We also increased our income thresholds in early 2023 so people with higher income levels now qualify for free legal advice.

Brittany: Can you speak about your relationship with other legal service providers across Alberta? How do you collaborate for maximum impact?

Debbie: Our collaboration with other legal service providers across Alberta is an important part of our strategy to extend our reach and impact. This includes partnerships with organizations such as Student Legal Services and Legal Aid Alberta. A key aspect of the ECLC model involves providing legal information and referrals. We guide clients to the most appropriate agency based on their specific legal issues and other pertinent criteria, ensuring they receive the best possible support. Additionally, our connection with the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Law is particularly strong. We engage law students as volunteers, practicum students, and summer clerks. These relationships not only enhance our service delivery but also foster a vibrant learning environment for future legal professionals.

Brittany: What advice would you give to someone who’s hesitant about reaching out to ECLC for support?

Debbie: Please contact us! It's completely normal to feel hesitant, but we're here to listen and help. Our team is dedicated to providing support and guidance. If we're not able to answer your question directly, we have a comprehensive network and the knowledge to direct you to the best agency suited to meet your needs. Our goal is to ensure you feel supported and informed every step of the way.

For anyone feeling overwhelmed or uncertain about seeking legal support, the ECLC stands ready to assist. Whether it's providing direct legal advice, referring you to specialized services, or simply offering a listening ear, the ECLC is a resource for those in need. Their holistic approach ensures that every individual is seen, heard, and supported.

If you or someone you know is looking for affordable legal support, the Edmonton Community Legal Centre is an invaluable resource. Contact the ECLC today to discover how they can help you navigate your legal journey with confidence and dignity. Let's work together to ensure that access to justice is a reality for everyone in our community.