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Child protection law course offered at UofO

|Written By Lisa Cumming
Child protection law course offered at UofO
Ottawa-area lawyer Julie Guindon taught a child protection law course that has become a more specialized area of family law.

The University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law has just wrapped up the first sitting of its new intensive child protection law course.

Julie Guindon, an Ottawa-area lawyer who specializes in family law, taught the course in January.

“It’s important for students to learn about this particular area of law because it is not taught in great depth or length in any other course,” Guindon says. “It has become a more specialized area of family law and, because students don’t have a lot of exposure to this type of law, we don’t have a lot of lawyers practising in this area of law.”

The course is offered in memory of the late Justice Heidi Levenson Polowin, whose friends, family and colleagues raised money to ensure its offering for the next five years. Levenson Polowin was appointed to the Superior Court of Justice in 2000. Prior to that, she obtained her law degree from the University of Ottawa in 1977 and, then, after leaving private practice in 1995, became director of legal services at the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa. The course was developed from a curriculum formerly taught by Ontario Superior Court Justice George MacPherson.

Guindon says that the course mixed the practical and the theoretical by, for example, offering students the opportunity to shadow a judge at a courthouse for one day and then give a presentation on what they learned.

“One day they were able to see the substantive law and the other day see it in action,” she says. “So that was kind of cool.”

Samantha Wisnicki, a third-year law student at the University of Ottawa, said the course was the highlight of her three years at law school. 

“It’s going to help prepare me for my [articling position] with The Office of the Children's Lawyer in Toronto starting in August,” she says. “It’s also an area of law that isn’t really touched on when you’re taking other courses in law school and it was an exciting opportunity to do that in an intense course [this] January.”

The University of Ottawa joins a long list of other Canadian law schools that also offer courses or seminars specifically about children and the law.

“Child protection work is very different from domestic family law and, if you think about private family law matters, you’re really, in the context of children, trying to sort through how parents are going to move forward and care for their kids,” says Shelley Kierstead, an assistant professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall law school in Toronto. “But when you look at child protection, you’re actually dealing with parents and the state, and the fact that you’ve got state intervention in the form of the children’s aid societies involved with families, first of all, gives rise to a whole different power dynamic.”

Kierstead teaches the Children and the Law seminar at Osgoode Hall and has been doing so since 2008. In 2010, she says, she turned the course toward exclusively focusing on child protection.

“The repercussions of a child protection proceeding can actually be that parents lose their parental status and children sort of lose their status as children of the parents,” she says. “So there’s the knowledge base and the skillset around advocating for children, parents and even the state in child protection matters that is really very different from the domestic family law side of things.”

Looking at what kind of impact this course could have, Guindon is hopeful that the specifics will encourage more young lawyers to practise in this area.

“I think that the most important thing for me was to see how much the students are interested and became enthusiasts in this area of law, to see them enjoying their experience in court,” she says. “To see that there are some relationships being developed between the students and the bar is fantastic.”