Osgoode Hall Law School’s Community and Legal Aid Services Programme is taking action to support Ontario’s vulnerable workers.
On March 10, CLASP opened an employment law division to help meet what has been identified as a serious need in a neighbourhood near the law school.
Phanath Im, review counsel for the new division — as well as a former CLASP division leader and 2010 Osgoode graduate — says that while part of legal work is representing the individual, at a clinic such as theirs, it’s also a “very human endeavour.”
“We aim to look at our clients more holistically — not just as a legal case. We want to look at all issues.”
CLASP senior division leader and third-year Osgoode law student Alvin Qian says they keep track of people who seek assistance they are unable to provide, and a lot of those turned away had come in for employment law services. CLASP would refer people to other places that offer employment law assistance, but there are “not a lot, and they’re not close.”
“They have limited time and money, so commuting long distances is a great concern.”
For a clinic that prides itself on its holistic approach to clients, including social work students available to offer short-term support and referrals for ongoing care as people tackle legal issues, lacking this essential service was not sitting well.
Last fall, Legal Aid Ontario announced a $100,000 annual increase in funding for each of the province’s seven student legal aid clinics. While LAO didn’t specify where the funds should be allocated, “employment law and housing were the main areas of law” where the money was used, says Im.
The boost in funding gave CLASP the means to fill the gap in its employment law services. The employment law division is a one-year pilot project, starting off taking a limited number of cases and ramping up to full capacity by the summer.
LAO also provided funding to community clinics, earmarked specifically for expanding or launching employment services.
Im says this is the result of more attention being paid to employment law issues.
“I would go so far as to say this is a movement happening right now, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
It makes sense that Im would want to be involved in a project aiming to help the Jane-Finch community, which has high numbers of low-income residents as well as new immigrants — including, at one time, Im and her family.
“I feel very personally invested in the community. I grew up in Jane-Finch subsidized housing — my parents still live there — and I saw on a regular basis growing up the impact of the imbalance of power between employers and employees on individuals,” says Im.
She became “very interested in social justice work and employment law,” and she says she was the first Cambodian-Canadian to be called to the bar. She went on to work at the Ontario Ministry of Labour and then in the private sector as a labour lawyer at Keyser Mason Ball LLP and most recently Rubin Thomlinson LLP. All the while, she also volunteered as senior editor for Jane-Finch.com from 2004 to 2010.
But in her career, Im “continued to be frustrated by these power imbalances.”
“Having worked with the ministry, I have an understanding of how the government approaches employment law issues and of government enforcement. In the private sector, I worked with employers and employees, so I have a balanced understanding and I think that helps, too,” Im says. “It gives me an advantage in my case work because I understand all sides.”
Heading up the new employment law division was the perfect way to marry Im’s personal and professional experiences.
“It’s a very rare place to practise employment law,” she says. “It sounds cheesy, but it’s true — longevity in the law depends on whether you enjoy the work that you do.”
Im engaged in “extensive consultation with community groups, residents, and non-profit organizations in Toronto and the Jane-Finch community” and says everyone showed a lot of interest and excitement.
“This is, for them, a long time coming,” Im says. “It’s important to have a clinic that provides these services in the community.”
Qian says he is happy to have Im — and her comprehensive background in employment law — as review counsel.
“Phanath is a great asset. In the eyes of the public or clients seeking our help, it gives a legitimacy and helps build confidence,” says Qian.
He adds the hands-on experience helps put in perspective what students learn in the more isolated setting of the classroom.
Osgoode law students will represent clients in negotiations, mediations, and litigation at the Ontario Labour Relations Board, Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, Social Security Tribunal of Canada, and Small Claims Court in Toronto, all under Im’s watchful eye.
Qian calls it a great privilege to work directly on cases “to an extent you likely won’t see in other placements.”
In keeping with CLASP’s holistic approach, the division will also host community outreach programs and present public legal education sessions in the community.
“My division is also going to be working with other legal clinics who are involved in law reform initiatives around precarious work,” Im says, who notes her most important qualification is the passion she has for the issues.
“We’re going to be working at a case level with individuals, but we’re also looking to work — to affect change — at a systemic level in employment law issues.”