Students encouraged to embrace spirit of pro bono work

Students encouraged to embrace spirit of pro bono work
(l to r) Nathalie Des Rosiers, Doug Ferguson, and Matt Cohen speak to students about access to justice at the Pro Bono Students Canada national training conference. (Photo: Heather Gardiner)
It’s not all doom and gloom in the fight for access to justice, law students were told last week.

Law students from across the country hired by Pro Bono Students Canada as program co-ordinators gathered for the annual four-day national training conference in Toronto.

On May 23, Nathalie Des Rosiers, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and soon-to-be dean of the University of Ottawa common law faculty; Doug Ferguson, director of Community Legal Services at Western University; Matt Cohen, director of litigation projects at Pro Bono Law Ontario; and Osgoode Hall Law School dean Lorne Sossin spoke to students at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law about the access to justice crisis in this country and why pro bono work is so important.

In what is most likely his last opportunity to write on a chalkboard before U of T gets a new building to house its law school, Sossin wrote down two political decisions which he said have caused the access to justice crisis: the legal aid system and the monopoly on legal services.

“Access to justice isn’t access to lawyers,” he said, explaining that the way legal services are delivered needs to change to provide greater public access. He mentioned unbundling, better public legal information, the role of a digital lawyer, and legal education as a “patchwork quilt of innovations” that can improve access to justice.

Currently, three-quarters of people in court appear without a lawyer, said Cohen, calling it a “wholesale abandonment.” There are “oceans” of people who don’t have access to legal services, he says, and pro bono work is just one way to address the gaps. But he warned students that “sometimes there’s really no money in it.”

On the legal aid side, Ferguson said more funding is required “because it’s the right thing to do for democracy” and “democracy without justice isn’t democracy.”

Along with funding, wide-ranging support from the profession is needed as well, they said.

Sossin made reference to the establishment of Parkdale Community Legal Services in 1971 that launched the clinical movement. He noted that when the notion of providing pro bono legal services first came about, it was not wholeheartedly embraced by the profession. However, through the work of organizations like PBSC, it has since become a growing movement and is now at the heart of most law schools, he said.

Ferguson called for a reform to law school curriculum to embrace experiential learning; this way students could be doing more pro bono work through clinics, externships, etc., he said.

He commended Osgoode for its public interest requirement, where students have to complete a minimum of 40 hours of public interest work in order to graduate. But Cohen suggested mandatory pro bono work could take away from the spirit of volunteerism and create resentment.

In order for pro bono work to truly be embraced, law firms need to get onside, said Cohen. Des Rosiers added it is important to encourage pro bono work within organizations as well. Advocacy groups also play an important role by insisting on accountability to prevent injustices from happening in the first place, she said.

In the end, the panellists emphasized to students what an important job lies ahead of them and to remember that small changes can make a big difference.

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