‘Stars align’ for U of C’s new public interest law clinic

‘Stars align’ for U of C’s new public interest law clinic
Student Jennifer Cox says the new clinic will provide a fantastic opportunity for students to receive credit for public interest work.
The University of Calgary opened its new Public Interest Law Clinic on Nov. 2, made possible by a $1-million gift from the Peacock Family Foundation.

The clinic came about very quickly, “which is so incredible I can’t even really believe it when I think about it,” says its executive director, Molly Naber-Sykes.

The matchmaker responsible for the gift is Calgary lawyer Jim Peacock, whose brother’s family runs the foundation, says Naber-Sykes. “Stars aligned with Jim Peacock being here” when he attended a speech by a public interest lawyer at the school, she explains.

With the guidance of professor Nigel Banks, who has been harbouring the idea for the clinic for 25 years, “it all worked,” says Naber-Sykes.

The reason behind the gift?

“He has a long-standing commitment to public interest in Calgary,” says Naber-Sykes.

That commitment shows in Peacock’s out-of-office activities. He is presently a partner at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Calgary, former chairman of the board of directors of the Alberta Law Reform Institute, and was a bencher and president of the Law Society of Alberta in 2007.

“He formed the idea that the University of Calgary and Calgary itself could use a public interest law clinic,” following the presentation and conversations he had with professor Banks, says Naber-Sykes.

While there are clinics and pro bono services for individuals in Calgary, “we don’t have a public interest clinic that does precedent-setting litigation that serves groups of people with a common interest,” she notes.

Jennifer Cox, a 3L at the University of Calgary who is participating in the Natural Resources and Energy Environmental Law clinic, says that while there are options available to do public interest work, a lot of them are presented as extra-curricular activities.

“I think it’s fantastic,” she says, referring to the new clinic that will allow students to pursue public interest work and get credit.

Cox has been able to gauge the importance of environmental law by being exposed to a number of cases centred in Alberta, since the start of the course in September. Challenging development within the city to ensure it is environmentally friendly is one of the cases Cox has been working on.

On behalf of various groups, “[we are] trying to slow or stop that development or at least make sure it happens in a more environmentally friendly way,” she says.

Cox, along with other law students, is also helping another two groups to advocate for the extension of the emergency habitat to protect a specific type of sick fish listed under the Species at Risk Act.

“The articling position that I’ve secured is not public interest, but I have no doubt that my entire career will be marked by doing public interest work. It will probably be a lot of pro bono work,” she says.

Naber-Sykes hopes to have the new clinic space up and running in the summer. She is also working on developing a course that will start in January, in which a class of eight will take on cases from the clinic.

“I’ll be supervising them and the students will be doing all the work, which is perfect,” she jokes.

To get the clinic up to par, Naber-Sykes will be drawing on the resources of the professors at U of C and local public interest lawyers, who have all responded in a very positive way, she says.

“I have had three organizations contact me already asking me if we would take their case,” she adds.

“I think we have really important skills that we need to [offer] to the public who can’t afford them,” says Cox.

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