As the federal government looks to expand protections for transgender people with bill C-16, an Ontario initiative is examining what barriers the transgender community still faces in accessing justice.
The project, called Transforming Justice, was launched at the end of April to analyze the legal needs of the province’s transgender people. It includes a survey as well as workshops and focus groups that ask transgender people how they are struggling to find legal help when faced with discrimination and harassment.
“People have had issues with police, employment, family custody, and family access issues just because of who they are,” says Nicole Nussbaum, the lead lawyer on the project.
“And the frequency of these issues is also really shocking, so it’s the range of experiences as well as the frequency that has a really negative impact on not only the people who have had those experiences but trans people as a group.”
The HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario, which is conducting the study with funding from Legal Aid Ontario, hopes the information gathered will help legal service providers meet transgender peoples’ needs. HALCO first started to look into the possibility of launching a study with Nussbaum’s help after it realized very few people who identify as transgender were accessing the organization’s services.
A previous study researching health topics in Ontario’s transgender population, called the Trans Pulse Project, found 21 per cent of respondents had avoided going to the emergency room when they needed treatment for fear of discrimination or harassment.
“If people in the community feel safer outside of an emergency room in a medical emergency, how safe would they feel going to a lawyer’s office or accessing legal services when they have a real legal need?” asks Nussbaum.
The survey canvasses transgender people on their own experiences on legally dealing with or not dealing with problems such as discrimination, harassment and violence. It also asks whether they feel safe in legal spaces and about their interactions with police.
“Do people have positive or negative experiences walking into a court house, walking into a legal service provider’s office, interacting with court house staff?” says Nussbaum.
Nussbaum says part of the assessment will look to quantify negative experiences but also look at them qualitatively through its focus groups.
The study is also focusing on the legal struggles of transgender people affeted by HIV and AIDS, in particular as they often face “a double dose of discrimination,” says Nussbaum.
The study’s workshops and focus groups have also been providing transgender legal rights 101 advice to both legal providers and transgender participants.
The federal government introduced bill C-16 this week, which will assert human rights for transgender people across the country once passed.
Nussbaum says the study’s goal is to build upon the legislative gains such as bill C-16 to ensure the rights and protections they provide are upheld by appropriate legal access.
“When protections exist, the point isn’t for them to exist in the abstract, but for them toe exist in society in peoples’ life experience,” she says.
“So the legal assessment study is trying to identify the practical challenges to having those rights exist on an every day basis and being able to access legal assistance when its necessary to enforce rights.”