Pro Bono Students Canada

Justice Rosalie Abella delivers powerful address on access to justice at PBSC 15th Anniversary Dinner


As PBSC celebrates 15 years of service, new projects ‘solidify the organization in Canadian legal landscape of the future’. Highlighting the need for radical reforms and compassion at the Pro Bono Students Canada 15th anniversary dinner, Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella, of the Supreme Court of Canada, urged the legal profession to continue to expand and promote pro bono services to address the crisis of access to justice in Canada.

Justice Rosalie Abella and former Dean Ron Daniels (seated) with PBSC staff and student-staff from all 21 law schools in Canada

Abella asked all the PBSC students and their supervisors in the room to stand so they could be congratulated for their work, to loud and sustained applause from the room.  “By being part of Pro Bono Students Canada, you are part of one of the most visionary undertakings I’ve seen in 40 years at the bar,” said Abella.

What’s not so visionary is the justice system, it seems, as Abella highlighted its stubborn reluctance to evolve, to streamline procedures and to reflect the changing demands in Canadian society

“I cannot for the life of me understand why we still resolve civil disputes the way we did centuries ago …  Any good litigator from 1906 could, with a few hours of coaching, feel perfectly at home in today’s courtrooms.  Can we say that about any other profession?  If the medical profession has not been afraid over the last century to experiment with life in order to find better ways to save it, how can the legal system in conscience resist experimenting with justice in order to find better ways to deliver it?”

(L-R) PBSC National Director Nikki Gershbain, Dean Mayo Moran, Justice Rosalie Abella, HPARB Vice-Chair Taivi Lobu and Justice Bonnie Croll

The event was part of a larger conference weekend, which celebrated the organization’s successes and achievements and looked forward to the next phases of expansion and improvement.

The celebratory dinner’s Master of Ceremonies was Osgoode law school’s Dean Lorne Sossin, and featured an impressive lineup of speakers presenting in both official languages, including Paul Schabas for the Law Foundation of Ontario, Gillian Marriott of Pro Bono Law Alberta, Danielle McLaughlin of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Aminata Bal of University of Montreal Faculty of Law, Matthew Kelleher of McCarthy Tétrault Toronto, Guy Pratte of Borden Ladner Gervais Montreal, and recent PBSC alums and past National Student Coordinators Gillian Scarlett and John-Sebastian Tremblay.

In her opening remarks, Dean Mayo Moran paid tribute to the vision of Ronald Daniels, now Johns Hopkins University president, in creating Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC). Describing the Canadian justice system as “magnificent but fragile,” Moran credited his “gem of an idea” with changing the pro bono landscape in Canada, and making pro bono work part of the very fabric of the Canadian legal landscape.

(L-R) The Honourable Frank Iacobucci, former Dean Ron Daniels and Justice Rosalie Abella

Abella gave Daniels the inaugural PBSC Supporter Award for his vision in founding PBSC when he was dean of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, and for showing “the toxicity of injustice.” Said Abella: “[Ron] also knew that justice is the application of law to life.  So he wanted to make sure that a solid legal education wasn’t just about the laws future lawyers needed to embrace cerebrally, it was also about the humane values that informed how you exercise your judgment on behalf of the public.”

In his acceptance remarks, Daniels recounted the beginnings of PBSC, and said: “I am in awe of the organization … there are things happening that we never imagined.”

One thing Daniels probably never imagined is PBSC’s newest chapter set to launch at Thompson Rivers University Faculty of Law in January 2012, bringing the total number to 22 across Canada. PBSC is working with TRU’s Dean Chris Axworthy and his staff on the development of the chapter, and will work with volunteers from the inaugural law class to launch it.

Nikki Gershbain, national director of PBSC, concluded the evening with the announcement of three new project opportunities for PBSC students. Set to roll out across the country in September, these projects herald the next phase of expansion for PBSC, and help solidify the organization as an important force in the law school landscape in Canada, explained Gershbain:

  •  The PBSC-Dentons (formerly FMC) Tax Court of Canada will provide students with a rare opportunity to gain experience in tax law   outside of an employment setting. The first of its kind in Canada, the project allows students to provide pro bono representation for clients in front of the tax court of Canada.
  • In the PBSC Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Project, students across Canada will work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to develop public legal education seminars and materials for survivors of the Indian residential school system.
  • The PBSC-PBLA-McCarthy Tétrault Small Claims Court is being developed, as Alberta’s first pro bono duty counsel program for unrepresented litigants in small Claims Court in Edmonton and Calgary.

View the photo gallery of the gala event.

Watch the webcast of the entire event.

Read a story about the event in Canadian Lawyer 4 Students.

Article by Emily Hubling, PBSC National Family Law Program Coordinator, U of T Law Student (3L)

Photos: Gustavo Toledo Photography