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Pro Bono Students Canada celebrates 20th anniversary of the Family Law Project

On February 8th, 2018, our Family Law Project celebrated 20 years of service at a reunion in Toronto with over 70 current volunteers, alumni, PBSC leaders and supporters. Graciously hosted by PBSC’s National Legal Research Partner, Thomson Reuters, it was a delightful evening of reconnecting – and making new connections.

What started as a pilot project with just a handful of volunteers at one Toronto courthouse, today has today expanded to include programs in 12 cities across Canada. Each year, upwards of 155 law students volunteer with the program, helping low-income litigants fill out their court forms, and navigate their way through our complex justice system. The breakdown of a relationship can be the most difficult time in a person’s life, particularly when children are involved. At the same time, legal fees have skyrocketed and the court process is daunting. PBSC volunteers have been providing legal services to vulnerable, low-income Canadians facing family breakdown since 1998.

The evening began with brief remarks by PBSC’s National Director, Nikki Gershbain, commemorating the groundbreaking nature of the program, the first of its kind in Canada. PBSC was a pioneer in experiential learning for law students. With increasing numbers of unrepresented litigants appearing in family courts, the need for quality pro bono legal assistance was and continues to be on the rise. Gershbain explained how, twenty years later, in Ontario alone almost 2,000 unrepresented litigants are assisted each year. Those students deliver over 20,000 hours of free legal service, with a client satisfaction rate of an astonishing 100%!

None of the FLP’s fantastic work would be possible without generous funding from the project’s key partner in Ontario, Legal Aid Ontario. LAO Chair John McCamus emphasized the importance of the FLP as “an integral service addressing family law issues of self-represented litigants who do not qualify for LAO, but cannot afford a lawyer.” Mr. McCamus thanked the FLP student volunteers in the room, reminding them that : “We need more family lawyers: you are all needed.”

The evening recognized another key Ontario partner, Epstein Cole LLP. Managing Partner Roslyn Tsao noted that the FLP’s success lies in the engagement of not only students, but also the family law bar and the judiciary. Ms. Tsao noted that as an employer, Epstein Cole puts a high value on FLP experience. Not only because FLP students are “more qualified advocates”, but because these students are more likely to understand the importance of barriers to family justice, as well as power imbalances in the system and within families themselves. She noted : “The FLP engages students in an area of law that most students do not have an opportunity to interact with in law school.”

Andrea Himel, one of the FLP’s first volunteers back in 1998, took everyone back to the program’s humble beginnings, when volunteers were filling out court forms by hand, while current student Sylvia Basso spoke about her own experience as an unrepresented family law litigant. Ms. Basso credits the FLP for teaching her how to interact with clients in distress, and provide effective advocacy.

Keynote speaker Justice Harvey Brownstone, a driving force behind the creation of the FLP in 1997, celebrated the value FLP volunteers add to the court process. Justice Brownstone recalled “seeing first-hand how people who would otherwise be voiceless come into court, now armed with materials that tell their stories effectively”. Justice Brownstone added that he always enjoys seeing former student volunteers appear before him as members of the Bar, commenting that the FLP “creates amazing lawyers out of amazing people.” He concluded by noting: “I cannot wait for the first judge to come out of the FLP.”

The Honourable Justice Robert Spence of the Ontario Court of Justice recently said of the FLP anniversary:

"… our court has long been a supporter of PBSC for three reasons. First, it provides the students with a wonderful opportunity to be exposed to clients and the real world of family law litigation. Second, the material that the students prepare for the clients assists the judges to better understand what the clients are about, what they are seeking, and why they are seeking the particular relief. Third, and most important, the students are able to help the poorest, generally the most disadvantaged persons who attend court. Without the help of PBSC, these persons would often find themselves flailing helplessly, without a lawyer and certainly without any real understanding of the court process.

For all of those reasons, I myself was an early participant as a lawyer volunteer when PBSC was just getting underway.

We all do what we can in order to contribute to making family law litigation just a little bit less stressful for people who are not otherwise able to hire their own private counsel. All of the students who do this work should take tremendous pride in what they do."

The access to justice crisis in family law remains acute, with up to 80 per cent of litigants appearing in court without counsel. PBSC is proud to play a role in helping to fill some of those gaps. We look forward to another 20 years of public service!


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