Pro Bono Students Canada

Law schools and access to justice


By  Beverly Spencer, CBA National Magazine, April 27 2013.

They’re resourceful, innovative, caring and not bound by convention and the status quo. So why are law students not a bigger part of the access to justice solution?
It’s a combination of reasons: there’s practical limits on what they can; not enough lawyers willing to supervise them; concerns about quality and some resistance from law schools to adding practical training to the curriculum, according to participants in a Saturday morning panel during the Envisioning Equal Justice summit.

Law students want to get involved: Pro Bono Students Canada will place 1,600 law students in 450 partner organizations by the end of this year, providing 140,000 hours of free legal services, said executive director Nikki Gershbain. On the other hand, 700 law students were turned away from the program last year due to a lack of resources; that’s 56,000 hours of lost services.

Building more opportunities for experience into the curriculum is one way to tap that potential: one U.S. law school has turned third year into experiential learning. Another solution is to build practical experience into individual courses, for example by having a practitioner teach students how to draft a will during wills and estates class then having the students prepare wills for low-income clients.

But law schools are reluctant to try it, said Doug Ferguson, president of the Association for Canadian Clinical Legal Education and director of community legal services at the University of Western Ontario. Teaching practical skills is not considered as important as teaching substantive law, he said, noting that many faculty have little experience in private practice. Only pressure from external sources such as the Federation of Law Societies and the private bar will lead to change, he believes.

The upside? The practice and clients would be provided with more competent lawyers who are more aware of their responsibility to provide access to justice to the less fortunate, he said.

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