Pro Bono Students Canada

PBSC 2014 Conference a Huge Success! Kick-Off Panel on Access to Justice Inspires Law Students

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Kristin Marshall (left), speaking with Matthew Kelleher (middle), and Lorne Sossin (right)

Kristin Marshall, PBSC Program Manager, enjoying the panel with Matt Kelleher, Partner, McCarthy Tétrault LLP, and Lorne Sossin, Dean of Osgoode Hall Law School.

“Meet the users of the justice system. They will inspire you to want to help them more.” This piece of advice came from Matthew Cohen, Director of Litigation Projects at Pro Bono Law Ontario, speaking to a room full of PBSC law student leaders and faculty advisors in Toronto on May 22.  Cohen’s remark was one of the many insights into the access to justice crisis in Canada provided by a panel of pro bono lawyers and advocates.

The panel and dinner held at the Toronto offices of McCarthy Tétrault LLP, PBSC’s national law firm partner, kicked-off PBSC’s annual National Training Conference, the four-day event where PBSC trains the 50 or so law students who will be responsible for running our 21 chapters each year.

In addition to Cohen, who supervises PBSC students placed at PBLO, the speakers included Cynthia Petersen, Partner at the union-side labour law firm Sack, Goldblatt, Mitchell, LLP and Charter expert; Doug Ferguson, Director of Western Law’s Community Legal Clinic, PBSC Western supervisor, and long-time advocate for clinical legal education, and Shane D’Souza, Associate at McCarthy Tétrault and member of the Firm’s National Pro Bono Committee.

PBSC National Director Nikki Gershbain welcomed the speakers and introduced Dean Lorne Sossin of Osgoode Hall Law School, a long-time supporter of PBSC who moderated the panel with his usual intelligence and humour.

In setting out the backdrop for the evening’s discussion, Sossin noted that any discussion of delivering access to the justice system must first ask what we mean by justice.  He noted that true access to the legal system requires more than providing lawyers for low-income people.  Rather, it requires people to first know their rights and what are justiciable issues, then understand the full constellation of options – legal and otherwise – that are best for them. Sossin went on to observe that even though the country is in the midst of several provincial elections and Federal by-elections, “I don’t hear [politicians] talking about justice, about people’s rights needing to be vindicated.”  He asked: “Why does no one seem to care [about this crisis]?”

Ferguson agreed, cautioning: “We are approaching a tipping point in access to justice.” He went on to draw the connection between access to justice and our basic democratic principles, pointing out that “a society that doesn’t have the ability to enforce the rule of law can’t enforce democracy.” Ferguson proposed that in order to create a generation of lawyers committed to these values, we need to decide as a profession that we want to make clinical education a requirement in law schools, ensuring that Canadian law students are taught about this crisis.

Observing that “the visible manifestation of the crisis is the self-represented litigant,” Cohen explained that it was simply not realistic to think that the solution to the crisis could include finding lawyer for every person who has a legal issue. Rather, the profession should aspire to create a system of access to legal assistance by “embracing self-help”, the idea that people can be educated and equipped to navigate the system and resolve their own legal problems.

PBSC Program Coordinators enjoying refreshments before the panel

PBSC Program Coordinators enjoying refreshments before the panel

Shane D’Souza provided the students with the perspective of a private lawyer who often appears on the other side of a file with self-represented litigants.  He spoke of the importance of ethical lawyering, encouraging the students to balance their role as strong advocates for their clients with their professional duties to the administration of justice.  “Always be fair with self-represented litigants”, D’Souza said. “Educate [them] and [do not] not take advantage of them.”  He explained that it was in both the lawyer’s and the client’s interest to be fair with all parties.

The evening ended with a discussion of the trend toward experiential learning in the law schools. Petersen said she considers programs like PBSC to be “tremendously valuable, [not only] to the people who receive the services, [but to all of you], in terms of your education and skills development.”  She added that meaningful, practical learning opportunities “attract the best students” to the law schools and “contribute to a larger cultural change in the profession”. Despite encouraging the audience to continue to work for the public interest once they enter the profession, Petersen left the students with an important word of advice: “Maintain balance in your life”.

“We are in a profession where time is money,” Sossin said to the students in closing.  Praising them for their commitment to pro bono, he elaborated: “For many of you, time is the most valuable thing you can give back to your community.”

PBSC students left the opening night of the conference with the context required for their work with PBSC in the coming year.  They spoke about being energized for the training weekend ahead, and inspired to return to their law schools knowing that their work with PBSC would help fill gaps in the justice system and have a meaningful impact on their local communities.