PBSC Kicks off our Campaign for Family Justice with an op-ed by our National Director in the Toronto Star!Print
Nikki Gershbain (National Director, PBSC), Op-ed for The Toronto Star, Dec 09 2013
Much has been written lately about the inability of Canadians to afford skyrocketing legal fees. The situation is so dire that our top judge, Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin of the Supreme Court of Canada, has said that Canada is “increasingly failing in our responsibility to provide a justice system that [is] accessible, responsive and citizen-focused.”
In short, Canadians face an unprecedented crisis: a gulf between our shared belief that in a democracy, access to justice is a fundamental right, and the growing reality that only the rich can afford a lawyer.
The legal profession has been searching for ways to make our services more affordable. One idea that has a lot of support in theory – but that hasn’t gained as much traction as it should in practice – is making better use of students.
The more than 12,000 students currently studying at law schools in this country are an untapped resource which, if properly utilized, could make a dramatic difference.
A recent report from a committee chaired by Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwellis calling on the legal profession, the judiciary, and governments to overhaul the Canadian justice system.
Among other things, the report calls for the expansion of civil and family pro bono, or “free of charge,” programs – including those delivered by law students.
This is yet another report written over the last five years that suggests leveraging law students to help respond to the access-to-justice crisis.
There is no question that now is the time to look to Canada’s law students to help meet the growing gaps in access to legal services. Law student pro bono not only helps ordinary Canadians access the legal system, it trains law students to be more sensitive, compassionate lawyers and creates a generation of lawyers primed to using their legal skills to make a difference in their community.
Student pro bono is not a panacea to the access to justice crisis our country faces. Pro bono in general cannot, and should not, replace government legal aid programs. It is, however, a critical if partial response to unmet legal needs.
If law student pro bono is such a great idea, why are we not making better use of our smart and committed law students across this country?
The simple answer is that while student pro bono is an affordable and efficient way to increase access to justice, even volunteer programs require resources to operate. In Canada, student pro bono and clinical programs are massively under-resourced and under-staffed.
This is one area where we need to follow the American lead. From the first day of law school, American students learn that pro bono work is the professional responsibility of all lawyers.
The American Bar Association requires that law schools make pro bono opportunities available to students. Law students at many leading U.S. law schools are required to complete a certain number of pro bono hours before they can graduate.
There is no similar rule in Canada. And only one law school – Osgoode Hall Law School at York University – has a public interest graduation requirement.
Canada’s national pro bono student program, Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC), does what it can to meet the demand for volunteer placements by students.
For the last 17 years, PBSC has been recruiting students from almost every law school in the country to help low-income Canadians with their legal problems. Every year, about 1,600 PBSC students provide free legal services in all areas of the law. They fill out court forms, draft wills and other legal documents, deliver legal education workshops, and write legal memos – all under the careful supervision of trained lawyers.
PBSC is creating a generation of lawyers dedicated to using their law degrees to help vulnerable Canadians. More than 80 per cent of the volunteers report that they plan to continue to do pro bono upon graduation.
Unfortunately, PBSC is staring down a major funding crisis. Unless it can raise $400,000 over the next three years, it will be forced to cut the program in half – precisely at a time when its services are needed most.
At a time when drawing on the skills of trained and supervised law students is an obvious way to help address the access to justice gap, student pro bono should be growing, not shrinking.
All members of the legal profession – law societies, bar associations, law firms and law schools – should be doing everything in their power to support and expand law school programs that provide vulnerable Canadians with information, assistance and dignity in a time of need.
Leveraging the skills of law students should be an integral part of the legal profession’s access to justice plan. Pro Bono Students Canada is calling on the profession to do what it can to help us provide Canadians with affordable legal services, while educating and sensitizing the next generation of lawyers.