The offices of a Bay Street law firm may seem far removed from the July 9 street party shooting on Danzig Street in Toronto’s east Scarborough neighbourhood, but Heenan Blaikie LLP has a well-established connection to that community.
“I view this as a tragedy on many levels,” says Ryan Teschner, an associate in Heenan’s litigation department. “This is near and dear to me as a volunteer and more now than ever all hands need to be on deck.”
Two years ago Teschner, along with fellow associate Trevor Guy, helped launch a pro bono program to provide improved legal services to the residents via the East Scarborough Store Front, an umbrella organization that brings together 40 different partner agencies to help residents in the Kingston-Galloway area of Scarborough.
Through the firm’s pro bono legal services initiative created in January 2010, help is available to clients in the community who need assistance that goes beyond that of a legal aid lawyer.
“Often 15 minutes with a legal aid lawyer isn’t enough to help some people,” says Teschner. “Sometimes there are issues that are more complicated.”
When that is the case, the legal aid lawyer fills out a referral form and sends it to Teschner and Guy who co-ordinate with their colleagues and determine whether it’s an area the firm practises in, and can assist, for free.
The firm has worked on 20 matters for East Scarborough residents over the last two years.
Recently, an associate in the firm’s tax department assisted with the paperwork required to set up a trust fund for the funeral of 14-year-old shooting victim Shyanne Charles, whose funeral will be held July 28.
Money needed to be raised to fund different aspects of the girl’s funeral so her family could have the type of service they wanted to have, Teschner explains.
“They came to us in an effort to set up a fund that could operate to collect those funds in the appropriate way to apply to the appropriate expenses. An associate in the tax department worked on the relevant documents and in a few hours provided the services to get the fund up and running,” he says.
“Fortunately, there was a very real way we could help here, unfortunately it was after the tragedy had already occurred, but so as not to leave somebody without the ability to have the kind of funeral that they would like to have for their loved one. We were able to step in and play a small role in making that happen,” says Teschner.
While he acknowledges that “access to justice” has become a bit of a buzz phrase over the last few years, Teschner feels the pro bono program Heenan Blaikie has established with East Scarborough Storefront is “real access to justice.”
“It’s great for our lawyers here too — they are given experience on matters they might not always get experience with and to see very real examples of how their legal skills benefit a particular person,” he says.
The pro bono program is part of the firm’s overall efforts to assist Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods with legal services and access to youth employment opportunities.
“What’s been eye opening, and unfortunately confirmatory to me, is that people who are not able to access counsel find themselves in a situation more difficult to handle simply because they don’t have the resources to go up against those who might be making life a little bit difficult. It’s a consistent theme in the 20 matters we have handled. The missing ingredient of access to justice is often what creates dire situations.”