Legal Information for Everyone: The LIFE Podcast

Notes from the Field: an Interview with David Cheng (MSW, Hamilton Legal Outreach)

Episode Summary

In this episode, we have conversation with David Cheng, a Social Worker and Systems Navigator at the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic. We learn about the Hamilton Legal Outreach, a service that aims to bridge the gap between community and access to legal services. We also talk a bit about some limitations of legal services, public legal education, and why access to legal services is so important.

Episode Transcription

[Transcribed by Shaila Jamal]


David Cheng: Having access allows people to make choices and allows them to hopefully feel empowered in how they get support.


Merima Menzildzic: Welcome to Legal Information for Everyone: The LIFE Podcast. We are your hosts, Merima and Sabrina, and together we work on legal education projects at the Social Planning and Research Council based in Hamilton, Ontario. The City of Hamilton sits on the traditional territories of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Anishinaabe nations who have for thousands of years shared in this land.

Sabrina Sibbald: In this episode, we have conversation with David Cheng, a Social Worker and Systems Navigator at the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic. We learn about the Hamilton Legal Outreach, a service that aims to bridge the gap between community and access to legal services. You can find the transcript of this conversation at our website which is That's S I M P L E. C A S

Merima: While we are financially supported by The Law Foundation of Ontario, the SPRC, Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, is solely responsible for all content.

Sabrina: The information contained in this podcast is also not substitute for legal advice and may changes laws are updated. We are not liable for changing information and if you have a question of your specific situation, please contact a lawyer who practices in that area of law.


Sabrina: Hi David, thanks so much for joining us today. Could you share a bit about what your role is and what the Hamilton Outreach Project does?

David: So, my name is David Cheng. I am the Social Worker at the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic and my role is I am part of the Hamilton Legal Outreach Program which essentially [02:00] supports community members who typically don’t access the Legal Clinic to access the Legal Clinic. So, we basically work with community partners, charities, other institutions in Hamilton and we try to support individuals to get legal advice. Otherwise, they likely wouldn’t seek the legal advice. So, we are kind of reach a niche community group that is obviously growing in Hamilton right now.

Sabrina: Can you expand a little bit on why some people might not access legal services, in terms of what barriers have you seen present and why do you think those barriers exist?

David: Yeah, so some barriers that folks face when trying to reach out legal clinic is perhaps they are not aware of all the legal rights, they are not aware of the legal complexities that can be involved in their situation. And that’s fair. Some could be simply physical challenges. They may not have the resources to get to the clinic. Despite being in downtown, despite being near major transportation areas of the city, there could be physical barriers of accessing us. There is also the component of mental health challenges whereas they may not feel emotionally or psychologically prepared to come to see us. So, there can be a…there is a whole host of reasons. That’s why this program is unique in a way where we try to look for community members and we try to meet them in their own—at the comfort of their own space, regions of their own community.

Merima: So I think that covered a bit of the structure of the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic’s Outreach Program. [04:00] But I was wondering if you could maybe speak to any other information people might need to know if they're looking to access the service, or really anything else about the program you'd like to add in.

David: So at the Hamilton Legal Outreach Program, we work with multiple community partners, that include the Aboriginal Health Center, the Good Shepherd`s Barrett Center, Mission services at 196 Wentworth Street North, the Notre Dame house, McMaster Family Practice, the Hamilton Regional Indian Center, Neighbor to Neighbor and Living Rock…Living Rock Ministries. So, these partners work with us and what they do is that they provide space for some of our staff lawyers to be present and to engage with their clients. And that's been really helpful because: a. it allows clients to not need to necessarily come visit us initially and b. it allows our staff to also engage with the community, allows the clinic to engage the community. Again, this program really focuses on accessing community members who typically don't access legal services. So, to address that we're going to be engaging the communities in non-conventional ways.

Sabrina: In addition to making legal services more accessible, what are some other benefits that you've seen for folks who are able to access these legal services within community spaces through the Hamilton Legal Outreach Program?

David: We work closely with other service providers who provide a wrap around service. So for instance, so for instance, really, it's actually a good idea that a lot of these clients are accessing community partners rather than us because those community partners likely offer other services that can be beneficial to their long term support and care. So, a lot of times, the Clinic will partner [06:00] up with services, close communication, obviously, ensuring the clients are aware. But again, because the client began their journey of support at these community partners, and it allows them for a sense of familiarity. And really, it just gives them more control in the process, which I think a lot of individuals, they would appreciate.

Merima: So would an example of that look like partnering with health care providers?

David: Yes. So, we're trying to work with health care providers in Hamilton to make the service more viable. So, stay tuned in 2020. But we are in discussions with St. Joseph's Healthcare System to have something like that, and we can definitely provide more updates to the community in that.

Merima: So with respect to resources, where could people find more information about some of the work that the legal clinic is doing right now?

David: For up-to-date information on the community, you can always head to our website at, you may also call the clinic at 905-527-4572. And you can speak to any support staff, and they can provide some more information or you can always visit us at 100 Main Street East, on the second floor. Yeah, so we try to make this information as accessible as possible. But then again, you can also call into any of the community partners that we mentioned earlier, and get more information there as well.

Merima: I also believe you have a calendar that's available online. Is that correct?

David: Yes. So the website mentioned as well has a calendar that you can see the schedules and times. Yeah.

Sabrina: [08:00] David, can you talk a bit about why greater access to resources in community programs is important?

David: So, access is really essential because access, it addresses a lot of issues and the relationship between community service providers and the community itself. Just going back to a lot of historical trauma to just mistrust of the health care system, mistrust of the justice system, racism, oppression that's all found within these institutions in this country, that having access allows people to make choices and allows them to hopefully feel empowered in how they get support. And again, that allows them to have a choice. So again, so that's why we work closely with community partners who may be more *quote unquote* in touch with a community member’s struggles with their lived experiences. Again, the Legal Clinic, despite being a non-profit charity, we are funded by Legal Aid Ontario, which is directly from the Attorney General's Office essentially. So, with that said there could be mistrust and there likely is mistrust between the community and us. And that's not to say that other community partners may not have that struggle. But it's something that we need to be cognizant of as we provide services and be aware of, really the privilege that we have kind of position that we are in when it comes to client-service provider power dynamics.

Merima: Thank you for articulating that in a way that I think I've been searching for some of those words for the past few months, and I think you really spoke to the nature of accessing services and barriers to services.

Sabrina: [10:00] So, as we've discussed, the work that you do is with folks who might not access *quote unquote*, traditional methods of engaging with legal information or legal services. Is there anything else that you think would be helpful for people to know in terms of legal information or legal advice or resources throughout the city that will help people access these services?

David: Yeah, the first one is I can touch upon some of the limitations that Hamilton Legal Outreach does have. We are mostly a referral service. And then with my job in particular, it's—I would coordinate supports for individuals. So with the lawyer and with the community partner, we would find intensive case management agencies to support the client. But the Clinic, we don't have the capacity to necessarily provide those services. So, it's important to recognize some of the limitations that this program does have, despite being trying to be as open as possible. And I think that with a lot of services in the community, including ours, is that it's also really important that we're honest with clients in terms of what we can do, and to not provide this sensational utopia for them. Because we can only do so much. Yeah, and I think that, ethically speaking, those are very clear boundaries that should be made at the very beginning of a relationship with a client. And I think that with how open the program at the Legal Clinic is with the Hamilton Legal Outreach, it's an area that I could definitely improve on but also… [12:00] Yeah, I can definitely improve on.

Sabrina: Can you expand a bit, David, on how you navigate some of these limitations in your role, as well as how these limitations might affect clients who you work with?

David: Yeah. So a lot of it is being aware of the services. Not only are you are managing or overseeing a caseload of individuals, but you're also keeping your eye out for other services that may be available in Hamilton. A lot of times, it comes down to a good balance of being able to provide services but also being aware of existing service and being aware of new services that come out. So there's a lot of parts moving in my role. And that does translate to a limitation in a way of I'm only as… I'm really only as effective—I'm only really as effective to the service that is available and how willing I am to also engage with the community and because there's a good correlation between them. And I think that also recognizing that sometimes with clients, that there's always going to be a sense of trial and error with clients. And that's not to say that we leave clients to kind of do what they want to do. But more so it's just saying that if this experience for this kind of solution doesn’t necessarily work, it's okay to kind of go to the next one and just keep trying until we figure something out. And obviously, keeping it within what's ethical and fair for the client as well as yourself.

Sabrina: One thing that I think has been really threaded throughout our conversation, David, is that the Hamilton Legal Outreach Program is really [14:00] rooted in flexibility. And I think that's great, meeting community members where they are and where they feel comfortable accessing services. For many folks, it's, of course, less intimidating to access legal services in a community space where they feel comfortable, then to go somewhere like the Legal Clinic. But for some folks, it's still intimidating to know that you're accessing any form of legal services, even if it's in within a community space that you do know. In your experience, what are some other ways that people might interact with legal systems within the space of their daily lives, that might equip them with information about their rights, or even lead them to feel more comfortable and eventually lead them to access legal services?

David: So, I think this is where public awareness and public education really comes into light where we hope that individuals who are coming into, who are going other service providers, who are accessing other service providers that—there are multiple factors to why they were there. Yes. And maybe because they had a legal concern, but also because maybe they want it or maybe because they heard something in passing—that from either public forums, from neighbors, just conversation, and they kind of felt that this—they could exercise—that they may have some rights that they would like to exercise. And I think that those are in conjunction to all—the idea of just knowing that you feel somewhat empowered and you have the motivation from hearing things and passing from neighbors hearing in passing from community from family that that all is kind of added together to why you would be want access the community. But I mean, to some folks, you're right, it's completely, it's very difficult. [16:00] And sometimes, when they do access legal support, it's because they're going to be evicted. They have a ordinate in the order. And I think that's the same struggle that healthcare systems kind of struggle with when it comes to trying to provide preventative care. But we have most people still end up in the ER rooms, for that reason. I think in legal service world where we're at, it's the same thing where we try to do public education, we try to explain tenant rights, we try to explain really what you can do prior to it becoming a bigger problem. I think that that's work that we can all do. And I think it's also a….it's kind of like a cultural shift in social care systems, where we kind of focus on the preventative measures that can really the economically, like, ethically and, like, humanely make sense.

Merima: So, part of my project and Sabrina's project is also looking at some of the difficulties and complications when accessing legal services. And now even more so than before, there are some changing dynamics within how people access legal services and think through legal information and legal advice. So, as somebody who works in a community legal clinic, how have service provision in the city changed over the last few years? And what are some of the additional complications and difficulties that you and the legal team have experienced within the context of your role?

David: So, we're seeing communities—as we're seeing communities, they're aging, they're becoming a lot less white. And I think that that's going to add additional considerations to how we provide services of—with [18:00] older adults, they're going to need, there's going to be a physical accommodation part to it, there's going to be realizing that they go through isolation more than ever, and how that can really contribute to deterioration of their health. And with new Canadians, they also struggle with, you know, just trying to learn new processes, get themselves settled. And they're—they have they have kids who are raised here, there's different values within that there's generational changes, and they can all be stressors, which at the end of the day, all come—can all be reflected and in the life of an older adult. So yeah, I think there's so many complexities—that there's so many life complexities that need to be considered. And that don't matter how fast you run as a service provider, you're always playing catch up.

Sabrina: Well, I think that the Hamilton Legal Outreach Program is a really great step in a needed direction. So thank you so much, David, for the great work that you and your team do in the community. And of course, for joining us here today, we really appreciate your time.

For listeners who want to learn more about what the Hamilton Legal Outreach Program does, or might want to access their services, again, you can find out more at


Merima: We hope that this conversation has provided you with some information about how you or communities that you support can access the Hamilton Legal Outreach Project.

Sabrina: If you have any feedback or ideas of community partners or service providers [20:00] that you would like to learn more about on this podcast, please let us know. Our email is linked in the transcript available on our Simplecast site, which you can find at is

Merima: Thank you for listening and see you next time.