Discovering the Travelling Wills Clinic
5 October 2020
By Kevin Smith
As this is Make a Will Week, I was asked to let you know about an exciting possible initiative for delivering personal planning documents such as wills to low income adults living outside the lower mainland, the “Travelling Wills Clinic.” The Travelling Wills Clinic would serve those in remote, isolated, and underserved areas of BC – including members of First Nations living on and off reserve.
Why outside the lower mainland? A number of resources already exist in the lower mainland, including Access Pro Bono’s (APB) Wills Clinic, Seniors First BC’s (SFBC) Satellite Clinics, and the UBC law student clinics (LSLAP). UBC also has an Indigenous Community Legal Clinic in the Downtown Eastside.
Personal planning documents are important. For example, there can be serious consequences to not having a will. Some assume only rich people need a will – this is not the case. In fact, many rich people do not have a will, instead using trusts and personal corporations to deal with the passing on of their property. While a childless low-income person with relatively few assets may not think they need a will (and they may not), everyone with mixed families or young children should certainly have one. But according to one survey only 23% of people 18-34; 38% of people 35-54; and 67% of people 55+ have a will .
For BC’s rural communities there is a growing legal service gap as older lawyers and notaries retire. A person can access existing online document production services and resources to help them draft a will, including:
- MyLawBC (access to 22 different will templates which can be downloaded and filled in using Word)
- Nidus (Representation Agreements)
- Wills & Personal Planning Resources
- My Voice
- People’s Law School – Planning for Your Future and Wills and Estates resources
- The Ministry of Health incapacity planning documents in pdf format (which can be printed out and filled in)
But many of these online legal resources require relatively sophisticated ‘functional literacy’ and ‘digital literacy,’ not to mention a computer with secure and reliable internet access, which is lacking in many parts of the province.
Seniors First BC, with funding from the Law Foundation, asked me to look into the feasibility of various options for serving rural communities, given my work helping set up the APB Wills Clinic and the SFBC Satellite Clinics. I studied various programs in BC and in other jurisdictions. A ‘Travelling Wills Clinic’ (Legal Information Society of Nova Scotia – “LISNS”) was an inspiration for this study. The Nova Scotia clinic intends to use staff of community centres and seniors organizations as ‘seniors’ legal info navigators’ to help seniors navigate its online document assembly solutions for personal planning documents. I interviewed various key informants in BC and elsewhere. I surveyed legal advocates, notaries, and wills and estate lawyers outside the lower mainland regarding the issues and possible solutions.
I reviewed how technology might assist in this project. One significant ‘legal tech’ initiative that might be applicable are online ‘pro bono clearinghouses’. Pro bono clearinghouses match those in need with pro bono service providers. Another initiative is online document assembly solutions with user friendly guided interviews or ‘pathways’ (such as exist with MyLaw BC) that result in the production of these personal planning documents. I concluded that technology can be a supplement but not a substitute for in-person legal service provision. In one study, over half of older adults who could be using the Canadian government’s online services were not, but would be if they received help and reassurance by phone, an online chat or video link. Some initiatives use screen-sharing and even keyboard sharing (e.g. – through Zoom) to help people navigate the document production process. Technology can help determine when in-person support is most needed, and how best to guide a person to it.
Overall, I concluded that three main options were feasible: a Travelling Wills Clinic; a Navigator Network;a ‘legal aid tariff’ for production of these documents; or a combination of these.
The Travelling Wills Clinic might involve one or two lawyers traveling to remote and isolated communities.
A network of ‘Navigators’ might be set up around the province. Navigators could include local legal service providers, staff of seniors centres, library staff, or others. A navigator program would include Navigators in First Nations communities on/off reserve. Navigators would help low income adults navigate the public legal education (PLE) materials on personal planning, and a possible online interview and document assembly solution to prepare these planning documents. These Navigators would not provide legal advice regarding the documents, unless they were also a lawyer/notary.
A ‘tariff’ would be a list of set fees to pay local lawyers or notaries to produce these documents. To support these initiatives, an online clearinghouse to match up adults in need with help and an online document assembly portal should be developed.
The following training and resources would be available to legal service providers and navigators participating in the program:
- a curated list of PLE resources on personal planning;
- training on document production using a document portal and screen/keyboard sharing;
- training on working with older adults;
- cultural competency training for working with first nations communities;
- training and resources for conducting legal capacity and undue influence assessments;
- an event planning toolkit for how to arrange, publicize, and put on a Wills Clinic or Document Planning Night in their communities.
Along came the pandemic and put this, as with so many things, on hold. Given its financial situation, the Law Foundation was no longer able to fund any sort of trial run or further implementation of this project by SFBC. But the pandemic did result in some promising changes in this area. The BC government passed emergency orders making it possible to have personal planning documents signed and witnessed by videoconference during the pandemic. Changes to the law will make this permanent for wills, and allow electronic wills and electronic signatures. APB is implementing an online clearinghouse for its lawyer referral service and pro bono lawyers, and is planning a document production portal for personal planning documents. Watch for further developments!