Wigging out about access to justice

At the end of November 2014, Zahra Abdille and her two sons were murdered by her abusive husband. For Lorne Sossin, this was a “tip-of-the-ice-berg moment.”

Osgoode law dean Lorne Sossin goes blonde for fun and to highlight the issue of access to justice.Abdille, a Toronto Public Health nurse, had tried to leave her abusive situation before it reached its tragic conclusion, but was stymied when she didn’t qualify for legal aid or housing assistance. In an all too familiar refrain, the system had failed.

“This gap between being eligible for legal aid and being able to afford counsel that she fell into meant she wasn’t able to get the legal assistance that could have prevented the crime from happening,” said Lorne Sossin, dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, addressing members of the legal community who came together last week in Toronto to launch the second year of Flip Your Wig For Justice, the pledge-based fundraiser, which aims to raise awareness as well as money for access to justice programs in Ontario.

“How many others do we never hear about because they’re never getting access to the services of the organizations that exist for their benefit, and never getting counsel who could take steps on their behalf?” Sossin asked the audience.

“That kind of silent tragedy is what animates the Flip Your Wig campaign.”

Flip Your Wig may seem to frame the issue with funny coloured wigs, but the six non-profits behind the campaign — the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Community Legal Education Ontario, METRAC Action on Violence, Ontario Justice Education Network, and Pro Bono Students Canada — as well as the ambassadors like Sossin, sponsors, and volunteers agree access to justice is no laughing matter.

One of the challenges, according to Sossin, is how to put a face to “what we’re really doing here,” and for him, Abdille’s story did that.

While the fun and flash will draw attention to the cause, it isn’t just about celebrating, Sossin said. It’s about understanding and connecting to the lives that are touched by these organizations.

As the fundraiser’s web site states, the campaign “plays on the combination of the traditional judicial wig, and the turn of phrase ‘Flip Your Wig’ — implying to be angry, or outraged.” For Sossin, this rings true.

“It is playful, it is fun, it is a better fashion statement for some of us than for others, it is coming together, it is the best values of the legal profession and legal community,” he said.

“For me, being an ambassador is trying to walk that fine line between the fun, the sense of community, the sense of shared enterprise and the sense of outrage, the sense of wanting there to be not another tragedy that we can tie in any way to a preventable incidence of access to justice that hasn’t occurred and that ought to have occured.”

Sossin called on those who share the sense of outrage to take steps to make a tangible difference whether by raising awareness and educating others, lending time and experience, or making monetary donations.

“It’s a principle we all adhere to and yet walk by in our daily lives knowing that it’s not lived up to and knowing we can be a part of that change that will ensure no one is left out,” he said.

The campaign’s goal is to raise $100,000 — which Sossin called “ambitious and achievable, as all good goals should be” — but it is not the only goal, he added. Supporters and contributors to the campaign should be aiming to have a broad reach — to participate in, shape, and be a catalyst for change.

Nikki Gershbain, national director of PBSC, says this year is going to be bigger and better than last. The campaign already has eight law firms on board as partners and a list of 80 — and growing — “leading members” of the profession who have “leant their names, their support, and credibility, quite frankly, to the campaign.”

Gershbain calls access to justice a very difficult story, and echoes Sossin by saying Flip Your Wig strikes the balance between focus on a serious issue and celebrating the profession coming together to form a “meaningful response” to the crisis. She credits this balance with making the campaign a success.

Another important aspect of success when addressing the access to justice crisis is looking to the future, Sossin said, and that means turning attention to law students.

“All the deans have been absolutely united in standing behind this. I look forward to sharing stories of the ways in which the next generation of leaders in our community are stepping up for Flip Your Wig.”

Participants can register online to make a difference by:
•    wearing a traditional judicial wig, or a wacky one, on Feb. 26;
•    making a pledge by sponsoring someone to wear a wig on Feb. 26;
•    committing to matching pledges raised by employees, if an organization wishes to get involved.

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