Didier Ketels founded Droits Quotidiens to train social workers as legal intermediaries who simplify the law and help disadvantaged groups resolve legal disputes quickly and fairly. His approach prevents disadvantaged people from getting caught in the bureaucracy of social and legal help for matters such as housing, debt repayment, or health and family problems—many of which can be worked out without ever needing a lawyer.
The New Idea
To prevent disadvantaged people from getting caught in the legal system, Droits Quotidiens provides assistance by training social service workers who work most closely with disadvantaged groups to become legal intermediaries. All across Europe, social workers from different social security, medical, and welfare centers, are at the forefront of combating social exclusion. With basic training they can become confident legal advisers that anticipate potential legal complications and work with clients them as quickly and simply as possible. Given that a single trial typically costs Belgium’s local government €3,000 (US$3,890), Didier’s prevention system is easing the financial burden legal action takes on both society and the state, in addition to giving a new role to social workers.
Didier’s approach is people centered. He uses laws and regulations as tools for solutions, rather than expecting people and their problems to adjust around the requirements of the law. Droits Quotidiens’s multifaceted approach includes training programs for social workers, a legal journal for the general public, a regularly updated online database, and a hotline for all matters related to social exclusion, without specializing in a particular branch of law.
Most importantly, Didier focuses on real-life situations and on understanding the needs of those living in poverty. He is progressively shifting the professional identity of lawyers and the attitudes of lawmakers by demonstrating the necessity to simplify the law and the advantages of making it more accessible and more concrete to those most marginalized in society. Didier works with networks of lawyers and social worker unions in France, Flanders, and Canada who want to apply the same framework in their local contexts.
Nearly one in five people in Belgium live under the poverty threshold: A level comparable to that of most of Europe’s western economies. These marginalized people often face legal problems that arise unbeknownst to them; problems they do not fully understand or know how to cope with. Lawyers are consulted to resolve such legal disputes but not to prevent the proceedings from initially occurring.
Underserved populations find such situations arduous and difficult to endure for a host of reasons. Indeed, even if one has access to a pro bono lawyer, going through the legal process often incurs numerous fees and a tremendous amount of time. Additionally, lawyers are not adequately trained to make the law more accessible in layman’s terms, and sometimes perceive the relationship between lawyer and client as simply a commercial exchange. Finally, due to the stigma attached to involvement in legal proceedings, many disadvantaged individuals forgo the full pursuit of their rights altogether.
There are numerous organizations throughout Europe that offer free consultations, but these tend to be specialized in specific domains, such as immigration, family, or criminal law. This narrow view makes it impossible to confront the entirety of an individual’s legal struggles. In addition, laws are constantly changing, and as a result, researching legal information can be highly complicated since much of it may be outdated.
Most often, social workers have very little legal training as it is only one minor aspect of their diverse field of study. While they can receive continuing education classes, they tend to be infrequent and specialized in areas social workers would confront more immediately and often. These training programs are very expensive, particularly when combined with the cost of the absence from their job. Workloads are often significant, which discourages social workers from attending long, theoretical legal training programs.
Through Droits Quotidiens, Didier is developing an extensive legal support system aimed at reinforcing social workers’ knowledge of a wide-range of legal matters so that they can serve as conduits to those most in need. He is achieving this end by implementing a bottom-up approach that includes a highly adapted training program for social workers based on curricula shaped by the most commonly asked questions of underserved populations. Droits Quotidiens collaborates with attorneys and judges to create and run the training programs which enrich their content and delivery. Additionally, this is proving to legal experts the essential role that social workers can play in identifying and preventing legal problems from arising. Didier is currently leveraging networks of lawyers and experts, but in the mid- to long-term, he wants to shift the legal education frameworks so that lawyers, lawmakers, and judges have a better understanding of the reality of those they serve and learn to work for their interest rather than the interest of law itself.
Didier’s team discerns key problems from information gathered during one-on-one consultations and has identified 800 concrete questions that help shape the curricula of the training program. These questions are then grouped by domain and each is given to a pool of independent experts. They then work with a coordinator from Droits Quotidiens who stays in touch with the target audience through personal meetings. Together, the experts and coordinator produce simple and concrete answers that are discernable for social workers and the general public, focusing less for example, on the different types of divorce in a legal dispute, and more specifically on questions such as how a person can keep his or her house in the case of divorce or personal bankruptcy.
These questions are then archived in an online database that is updated under the direction of a lawyer from Droits Quotidiens at least once every six months. The database is available to social workers who have been trained to use it as an up-to-date resource in unfamiliar situations or instances in which the laws have recently changed. The site also links to a number of other online sources in the legal field and serves as a platform for pertinent legal information.
Didier constantly encourages social workers to learn legal rationale in order to be able to give legal advice autonomously. He reinforces their ability to learn, think, and research for themselves (helped by one-on-one consultations, the journal, and the database of Droits Quotidiens). For him, the skills learned in the training program must be translated immediately into daily practice. As a result, thanks to a comprehensive legal support system, social workers do not need training in every legal domain but are instead able to apply the methodology learned during one training to different types of questions. Additionally, social workers are guided by the Droits Quotidiens team before, during, and after the training program, which guarantees a better cost/benefit ratio for their employers and the services they provide.
Droits Quotidiens offers its services to the primary social institutions in Belgium, such as hospitals and mutual and health insurance organizations. On average, social service centers dealing with health insurance employ six people to handle 17,000 cases per year, so training social workers has a significant multiplying effect. Over the last eight years, Droits Quotidiens has worked with nearly 5,000 social workers and currently trains between 800 and 1,000 a year.
Didier sees that while the law and its application vary from country to country in Europe, the questions and challenges faced by the most disadvantaged are similar, and that most European countries offer a large web of social services, representing a broad web of social workers who could benefit from the legal empowerment provided by Droits Quotidiens. Consequently, he is developing partnerships with locally based lawyers and legal training entities in France and Flanders to spread his impact beyond national borders.
Didier has always struggled with the complex nature of the law, which tends to be understood by highly educated experts rather than the common person. Over the course of his studies, he found he was less concerned with legal theory and more with the problems facing everyday people. He thought his classes were out of touch with reality, often focusing on obsolete subjects. Didier quickly realized that rather than pursue a career as an attorney, judge, or corporate lawyer, he wanted to create a profession that could use law as a means for a different end.
After law school, he left for West Africa to participate in a legal codification project where he worked to assemble and structure laws while also teaching at a local law school. After he returned, he continued to teach and soon became interested in closing the vast gap between the law and the people most directly affected by it.
Didier joined at Droits Quotidiens in 2000, and while continuing to teach part-time, he developed a training program to refocus the organization on training social workers. After taking on administrative responsibilities at Droits Quotidiens, Didier knew the organization needed to be more stable and its impact more permanent. He took several courses in management and education to better handle the growth of the organization and its development. Subsequently, Didier was able to convince the bar association that he was creating a group that would complement their work, not compete with it, and he successfully created partnerships with many legal professionals who write for the journal and contribute to Droits Quotidiens’s training program.
When Didier took the reins in 2003, Droits Quotidiens only had one employee. Today, just five years later, there are seven full-time employees—including four lawyers. The organization has grown from working locally to nationally, and is preparing to launch into neighboring countries.