A $150,000 donation is bringing Pro Bono Students Canada one step closer to a fundraising goal that will allow the organization to preserve — and eventually expand — its Family Law Project.
The Family Law Project gives law students the opportunity to support low-to-middle income earners who do not qualify for legal aid. The students assist clients with court forms and help navigate the court system.
“It’s literally the difference between having to shut down parts of the program and being able to keep it going,” says PBSC national director Nikki Gershbain.
The donation is a combined gift from Toronto-based family law firm Epstein Cole LLP and its founder Philip Epstein to PBSC’s Campaign for Family Justice, which has now raised $320,000 of its $400,000 shortfall.
Each year PBSC recruits about 160 students — a tenth of its volunteers — to work on family law projects across Canada, according to Gershbain. About 110 of those students volunteer in Ontario, where the Family Law Project has been operating for almost 16 years.
PBSC is looking to expand the Family Law Project to law schools that don’t currently have the program, as well as courts that do not have student placements.
“I think there is, increasingly, an awareness and an understanding in all corners of the profession that family law is the area where there is the greatest need in terms of access to justice and unrepresented litigants,” Gershbain says.
The Family Law Project makes a big difference in the courts, according to Justice Harvey Brownstone, a Toronto-based Ontario Court judge and proponent for a more accessible family justice system.
“Because of the legal aid eligibility requirements, you have to be able to be practically destitute to get legal aid,” says Brownstone. “So if you don’t fall in that category, but you’re not rich enough to pay for a lawyer — and that’s a huge category of people — then you don’t have anyone to complete paperwork and if you can’t complete the paperwork, you’re not going to be able to access the judicial system effectively.”
The law students in the Family Law Project make up that difference, he says.
“The students fill that huge gap by sitting down with the clients and getting them to tell their story so that the pleadings and the affidavits can be completed and filed properly so the judge understands what they want,” he says. “It’s extremely important because it’s the gateway to accessing the court system.”
But it’s the students that would have experienced the biggest loss if the Family Law Project had to be cancelled, explains Brownstone.
“Any student who is aspiring to have a career in family law after they graduate, if they don’t have on their resume that they’ve worked in the pro bono family law project, they’re at a real disadvantage,” he says. “It has become almost a prerequisite to getting an articling job or position as a family law junior lawyer — it’s that important.”
Margaretta Hanna, a former University of Toronto law student and current Epstein Cole articling student, volunteered with PBSC’s Family Law Project for a year before becoming a co-ordinator with the program for an additional year.
“Unless you seek opportunities out, you don’t have a lot of practical opportunities about how law gets practised in the real world,” says Hanna. “The Family Law Project puts you in the court, so we were actually able to work face-to-face with clients.”
The paperwork required in family law cases can be quite complicated, so early exposure to them is beneficial, she says.
“You get to really work on your practical writing skills,” she says. “In the program, you have a lawyer who oversees all of your work and approves it before it gets sent with the client before it is filed, so you have the benefit, too, of working with these lawyers reviewing your work directly.”
PBSC is continuing its fundraising efforts through to 2014 with a major event planned for the Campaign for Family Justice in October.