In 2014-2015, University of Alberta students, Ally Ismail and Will Peachman, volunteered with PBSC Alberta’s Human Rights Project and successfully advocated on behalf of a client before the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal. The matter involved a complaint of discrimination in employment on the grounds of religious beliefs, ancestry or place of origin, contrary to section 7 of the Alberta Human Rights Act.
The Human Rights Project is designed to serve unrepresented, low-income Albertans in their complaints before the Human Rights Commission. Working in pairs, under the supervision of PBLA and volunteer lawyers, student volunteers interview potential clients, carry out legal research, assist with the resolution of files and conduct hearings before the Human Rights Tribunal, which is a quasi-judicial administrative tribunal appointed by the Chief of the Commission and Tribunals. For Ally and Will this represented “an unparalleled opportunity to act on so much of the theoretical knowledge we had acquired during law school.” Ally and Will received high praise from the Chair of the Commission, who noted that they were well-prepared and that in five years they would be “fearsome” counsel.
Below is a Q&A with Ally (AI) and Will (WP) about their PBSC experience.
What attracted you to the project?
AI: I was attracted by the uniqueness of the project and the calibre of the volunteers already involved. It was clear from the outset that involvement in the project would be extensive, likely culminating in a hearing before the Commission. There are few comparable experiences in law school and I was interested immediately. I was also attracted by the enthusiasm of the project coordinator, Christopher Felling. His encouragement and support were the deciding factors when I chose to volunteer.
WP: The opportunity to manage a litigation file, gain experience with the Alberta Human Rights Commission and help the low-income community in Edmonton were key factors that attracted me to the Pro Bono Students Canada Human Rights Project. That the Human Rights Project provided hands-on practical advocacy experience while in law school was a major selling point.
How much support did you receive through the process?
AI: We received constant support, even into the late hours of the night preceding the hearing. Ayla Akgungor (our supervising lawyer), Chris and Nicholas Smith (the project coordinators), guided us through the process of providing written submissions, preparing our hearing materials, and accompanied us during the entire hearing. Most of all, Will was an excellent partner to work with.
WP: The support Ally and I received from our advising lawyer and PBSC Coordinators, Christopher Felling and Nick Smith was outstanding. Their guidance and mentorship helped us effectively manage the file and successfully prepare for the tribunal hearing.
How did it feel to get up in front of the Commission?
AI: It was both exciting and extremely nerve-wracking. It was exciting because we had an unparalleled opportunity to act on so much of the theoretical knowledge we had acquired during law school. It was nerve-wracking because the outcome of our work would have very real consequences for very real people.
WP: Even after previous court experience with Student Legal Services Edmonton and months of working on the file, the beginning of the tribunal hearing was nerve-wracking. It was quickly understood how dynamic and unpredictable a hearing can be. No amount of preparation can prepare you for sudden changes in live evidence and tricky cross-examinations. Thankfully Ally was an amazing co-agent and we were able to adapt to these changes and successfully build a case of discrimination against our principle.
How did you feel about the result?
AI: It was excruciating waiting nearly 6 months for the decision to be released. I was travelling in Morocco when the decision was sent to us and I almost couldn’t believe the result. It was a mixture of disbelief, elation and relief. Mostly, I think Will and I were extremely grateful that our hard work had paid off.
WP: I was elated to read the decision and discover we had been successful in our argument. Many sleepless nights and hours of hard work were reflected in the tribunal decision.
What do you think the impact was on the client?
AI: Will and I were only involved in the process for the last year of the complaint. The client, on the other hand, had filed the complaint 5 years ago. It’s an unfortunate aspect of our legal system that resolutions often take far too long. I can only imagine the client’s relief that the matter is finally resolved.
WP: Ms. Andric was extremely grateful for our help. Her 4-year journey through the Alberta Human Rights Commission as a self-represented complainant has not always been easy. Without the aid of Pro Bono Students Canada it is extremely unlikely she would have obtained the same result.
What was the impact on you?
AI: I now know that I want to practice litigation in the future. There are also very few experiences in law school where students have the opportunity to experience the realities of practice. I hope the project allows many more students to have the same experience.
WP: Working on the Human Rights Project was a huge learning experience, which reaffirmed my ambition to work in litigation. I hope to seek out further human right files and continue to develop my advocacy skills throughout my career.
Do you think that you will do pro bono work in the future?
AI: Definitely. Exposure to pro bono work in law school has the potential to shape a lawyer’s career. I know it will shape mine.
WP: Throughout my career I hope to give back to the community including further pro bono work.
The decision in Andric v. 585105 Alberta Ltd. o/a Spasation Salon & Day Spa, 2015 AHRC 14 can be found here.