Legal Aid Ontario is filling a gap in access to justice and at the same time giving law students experience and exposure to family law in university legal aid clinics.
Six university-operated clinics will get more than $2 million from LAO to fund family law services programs for low-income Ontarians. The money will be provided over three years.
The clinics are the University of Toronto’s Downtown Legal Services, Osgoode Hall Law School’s Community & Legal Aid Services Programme, Queen’s Legal Aid at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., the University of Ottawa’s Community Legal Clinic, Western University’s Community Legal Services in London, Ont., and the University of Windsor’s Community Legal Aid.
Providing funding for these services is one way LAO is working towards better access to justice and improved legal outcomes for low-income Ontarians, said the press release announcing the funding.
Aneurin Thomas, director general of policy and strategic research at LAO, says the organization has been working with student legal aid societies for many years and family law has been identified as a long-standing legal need in the offered services. Thomas says the project was made possible through the $30 million, over four years, in additional funding for legal aid announced by the provincial government in May 2013.
Another reason for the new family law program is the hope more students exposed to this area of law will go on to provide family law services in the future. There is always a need for family law lawyers willing to provide legal aid, Thomas says.
“It gives the students practical experience in family law,” he says. “We are very optimistic that students will like the program and we’ll be able to expand access to justice for family law services and will be able to continue the program in the long term.”
Doug Ferguson, the director of Western University’s Community Legal Services, says the gap in family law services for those needing legal assistance is striking. If you talk to lawyers and judges across Ontario, they report the self-representation numbers to be as high as 60 to 70 per cent, says Ferguson.
Self reps are well-intentioned and intelligent people, he adds, but the rules of family courts are complex and any mistake in the high volume of paperwork can cause substantial delays.
LAO recognized the issue and chose to fund law student legal aid societies because of cost efficiency and to help train the students in family law and give them the experience they need to practise law in a way that helps low-income families when they graduate, says Ferguson.
“It’s a win-win all around,” he adds.
While only a few days into the school year, Ferguson says the clinic hasn’t started recruiting yet but plans to take on around 15 students. Along with existing clinical students, he plans to float the idea in the family law course. He expects a large response to the request for volunteers.
Also a member of the Canadian Bar Association’s access to justice committee, Ferguson thinks the program will positively affect access to justice and has the potential to help a large number of people across the province.
“This is a very positive development,” he says. “It shows LAO’s confidence in the student clinics and recognizes we are part of the solution.”
“It’s thinking outside the box. Rather than using other methods we are trying something new.”
Marion Overholt, executive director of Community Legal Aid at the University of Windsor, also sees the new LAO funding as a chance to do something a little bit different than her counterparts.
She wants to place both law and social work students, with the goal of developing a more holistic model. She says that model has proven effective at her other clinic, Legal Assistance of Windsor, for the past 40 years.
“What it does is recognize when you’re providing legal services you can address all the needs a client presents in terms of referrals to agencies or counseling,” she says. “We’re really excited we’re allowed to provide these services in Windsor because a lot of times with family issues other issues arise in the social work field and we’ll be able to address both the law and the social work issues.”
The law students she has spoken with are very excited about the program, which, unlike the other five legal aid societies that are rolling out the program this month, will begin in January.
“Part of the law school experience when you can work in a clinic and directly service clients in need — that just really enriches your learning experience, it helps you address some skills, provides some training, and because the students are working very closely under the supervision of a lawyer it’s an ideal learning environment.”
“It’s going to be a really comprehensive service to low-income people in Windsor and Essex County.”
Thomas says the pilot program will be evaluated in a few years to address what’s working, what’s not, and to look at any changes needed. The hope is it’s doing well and LAO can continue funding it. Ferguson and Overholt echo the desire to keep the program up and running, helping the residents in Ontario who need it most. All three express optimism for the future.
“All of the student legal aid societies have told us the students are quite enthusiastic to do this kind of work,” Thomas says. “So obviously we are building from a good base.”