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The voluntary counsel

Law students offer their time pro bono to help guide groups and individuals – many of whom can’t afford legal counsel–through the judicial maze

BY SHELDON GORDON | APR 06 2009

On a blustery November morning, Rina Jeyakumar dashes, coatless, to the chambers of Toronto’s small claims court from a cramped law office across the courtyard, to have a word with the presiding judge. Leaning towards the bench, sotto voce, Ms. Jeyakumar requests a delay before her client’s trial begins. The client, a shabbily dressed young man, is suing the towing firm that he claims damaged his car and confiscated equipment that was inside. While he waits at the law office, Ms. Jeyakumar persuades the judge to move the trial down the docket. Her client gains 30 extra minutes to rehearse the testimony he will give in court.

Rina Jeyakumar is a second-year law student at the University of Toronto. She spends every Thursday at the court, assisting the on-duty counsel, whose job it is to give free legal advice to people who can’t afford to hire lawyers. While Ms. Jeyakumar isn’t yet a lawyer and therefore can’t give legal advice, she still meets with up to 15 clients a day, interviewing them, helping them fill out forms and explaining how the court works.

“There is a significant advantage to having legal representation,” says the petite, friendly student. “The legal system is designed to operate on that basis. It’s complicated. Of course, everyone has a story to tell, and wants to tell it. But we help them do it in a manner that facilitates the process for them.”

She adds, “The likelihood of success is so much greater when you have a lawyer.”

No less an authority than Canada’s Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Honorable Beverly McLachlin, has lamented that the right to a fair trial has been eroded for the average Canadian, thanks to prohibitively high legal fees. On some days, she has said, up to 40 percent of the litigants seen in court act as their own lawyer.

Ms. Jeyakumar’s contribution is one way the legal profession is trying to offer more accessible justice. She carries out her work as a volunteer for Pro Bono Students Canada, the world’s only national pro bono student organization. The organization involved just 50 students when it was founded at the University of Toronto’s law faculty a dozen years ago. Today it boasts an estimated 2,000 law student volunteers, spread across all 20 of the country’s law schools. “As many as one out of three law students participate” at some schools, says Krystyna Drywa, associate director of Pro Bono Students Canada.

These students collectively volunteer nearly 10,000 hours each week. They develop legal skills while providing valuable legal services to hundreds of public interest groups, government agencies, legal clinics and lawyers working pro bono, as well as to unrepresented individuals at courthouses and administrative tribunals. Depending on the project, they may conduct client-intake interviews, help counsel at trials or administrative hearings, write manuals and policy papers, lobby governments or create plain-language information brochures.

Volunteers – half of them are in first-year law – are supervised by established lawyers, such as Matthew Kelleher, a partner in the law firm McCarthy Tétrault. “Supervision may be the wrong word,” says Mr. Kelleher, “because they are awfully good at what they do.” The program “selects exceptional law students who are extremely keen and motivated,” he notes.

While Pro Bono Students Canada does provide students with valuable clinical experience, its value to law schools isn’t its educational component as much as “its contribution to the culture,” says Ken Norman, a law professor at University of Saskatchewan. Many law programs, he explains, already offer clinical experience that provides skills training in client counselling, interviewing and negotiation.

“But Pro Bono is doing something that is deeper. I would argue that if we didn’t have it, our faculty would have to do something to try to instil in our students a sense of social obligation and responsibility… to give back, to serve the public, not just serve their own career as lawyers or wherever their LLB takes them.”

At the heart of the program are the student coordinators at the 20 campuses, says Noah Aiken-Klar, executive director of Pro Bono Students Canada (who was himself a volunteer in his student days at U of T). The coordinators tend to be second- or third-year law students who volunteered for the program in their first year. The law firm McCarthy Tétrault committed $200,000 to pay for student coordinators in 2004. Significant funding for the program also comes from provincial law foundations.

Jean-Pierre Villaggi, vice-dean of studies in the faculty of political science and law at Université du Québec à Montréal, says he sees two basic kinds of students who volunteer. The first group includes those experienced in social activism – often they were student politicians, for example. The second are students who want to both give meaning to their studies and figure out how the profession will allow them to be useful to society. “These students discover their capacity to get socially involved,” he says.Why do so many Canadian law students volunteer for the program? For a lot of different reasons, ranging from bettering their career prospects, to figuring out what they want, to personal rewards in helping others.

Anna Johnston, student coordinator at the University of Victoria’s program, says the pro bono experience can be “really helpful” when a law graduate goes looking for an articling position. That’s especially true now, since the Canadian Bar Association and the provincial law societies are pushing lawyers to work pro bono hours: “Being able to demonstrate on your resumé that, as a law student, you’ve already begun to cultivate that awareness says quite a lot about the person.”

For many students, this opportunity might be the only one to work for a non-profit organization, says Lana MacLellan, student coordinator at the Dalhousie University branch. “Unfortunately, after three years of law school your debt is so high that it’s really difficult to do anything other than go to work for a [law] firm or a company. “

Doing pro bono work, students get a first taste of the personal satisfaction that comes with helping a client. Tiffany Robertson, a student volunteer at Dalhousie, felt “thrilled” when she helped a divorced woman win her appeal for legal aid funding to renegotiate a custody agreement. Not only did she get what amounted to a crash course in family law, but she says, “It was the first time I got to know a client and her circumstances. I felt I was able to use my limited legal skills to help her. It doesn’t feel like work when you’re helping someone you’ve gotten to know.”

The program also lets students try their hand at different areas of law. “When I started in law school, I thought I really knew what I wanted to do – immigration and human rights law,” says Ms. MacLellan from Dalhousie. “But I’ve changed 180 degrees” since working last year on a pro bono project in health law, the area she now wants to specialize in.

Jason Hatherly, a student coordinator at the University of Manitoba branch, says he still doesn’t know what kind of law he wants to practise. But he’s learned what he doesn’t want to do – aboriginal law – ever since working with aboriginal survivors of residential schools on a pro bono project. While he developed enormous sympathy for the Native cause, he says he also grew disillusioned with legal remedies for their plight.

“We were all white, privileged law students,” says Mr. Hatherly. “I don’t know what it’s like to be them, but we did our best to be sympathetic to their experiences. But how do you interact with an individual who had no father because he committed suicide as a result of his residential school experience? We talked about the principle of restorative justice, but for some people, there can be no justice.”

For pro bono law students, that, too, is a lesson learned.

The Pro Bono Students Canada volunteers have worked with aboriginal survivors of residential schools since 2006 to explain the details of the compensation agreement negotiated with the federal government. Many elderly former students needed help understanding the document’s complex language. The students simplified the agreement using plain language and, where necessary, Native interpreters.

University of Manitoba: aboriginal law

In the summer of 2007, students visited several Native communities to explain to school survivors how they could apply for the different levels of compensation. In 2008, volunteers discussed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, of which many in the community were unaware. The students broached the issue of giving confidential testimony before the commission.

“We told the Natives to take assurances of confidentiality with a grain of salt,” says Jason Hatherly, student coordinator for the U of Manitoba chapter of Pro Bono. “What they say can be used against them in court.”

Dalhousie University: legal-aid appeals

Students at Dalhousie work on campus in the legal-aid clinic to help individuals who have been turned down by Nova Scotia Legal Aid, usually because their income is too high but sometimes because their cases are deemed to be without merit.

The volunteers prepare factums to allow their clients to appeal the rejections. Under provincial law, no one should be forced to suffer “undue hardship” or dispose of “modest necessary assets” in order to hire a lawyer. “That’s the angle that we try to argue,” says Tiffany Robertson, who worked on the project in 2007 as a first-year student and is doing so again this school year.

Even though they’re usually unsuccessful because most applicants earn too much money, still “the appeals are not a waste of time for us,” she says. The Dalhousie chapter plans to use the data they’re gathering in preparing the appeals to advocate for an increase in the province’s legal aid budget. And a few appeals have succeeded, usually when a client’s weak command of English had sabotaged their original application.

University of Victoria: family violence

Students at UVic provide legal help to a non-profit centre that runs a transition house for women and their children who are escaping family violence. This year, four volunteers are doing a legal analysis of a new supplementary form, introduced by the B.C. government as part of the application process for subsidized housing.

The students are examining whether the form breaches the privacy rights of the applicants with overly intrusive questions. They are also scrutinizing the requirement that a third-party (such as the RCMP) assess each applicant and checking whether the third party can be held legally liable for an assessment that is inaccurate and reflects negatively on an applicant. “The perspective that the students bring is invaluable for us to know how to proceed,” says Marlene Goley, the centre’s manager of women’s and family services.

Université de Montréal: health and the workplace

Karine Tremblay, now in second year at U de M, volunteered in 2007 with the Quebec Association for Fibromyalgia (Association Québécoise d’Encéphalomyélite Myalgique). Since fibromyalgia sufferers often have difficulty gaining recognition of their condition, Ms. Tremblay helped draft a document that informs them how to get access to their medical records and where to lodge complaints against hospitals. Her research covered legal remedies and the operation of administrative tribunals, where the majority of conflicts with employers over fibromyalgia claims are heard.

“The majority of fibromyalgia sufferers lack the financial means or the health necessary to defend their rights,” says Ms. Tremblay. Her research will be especially helpful to those with cognitive problems, who now have the information compiled in a single document, rather than having to search among numerous sources.

PUBLISHED BY
Sheldon Gordon
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