Inspiring Innovation to Increase Access to Justice

“Listen”, “Reconciliation”, “Get Involved”, and “Be Zen” were the parting words of wisdom received by the Osgoode Hall and University of Toronto Chapters of Pro Bono Students Canada. Volunteers, sponsors, and community partners came together for the annual appreciation event held at McCarthy Tétrault’s Toronto Office on March 7, 2016. Osgoode Dean Lorne Sossin moderated an access to justice panel with the participation of Justice Harvey Brownstone of the Ontario Court of Justice, Grant Wedge of the Law Society of Upper Canada, Lama Sabbagh of McCarthy Tétrault, and Nikki Gershbain, National Director of PBSC. The panelists explained their vision for a more effective and accessible justice system through systemic reform, cultivating a personal ethic, and community empowerment.


 Justice Brownstone led off the conversation by noting that Canada’s court system is seen as a model in many countries, but it fails to address the multiple issues litigants face at once. Family and criminal issues are heard in isolation from each other, despite the fact that an overwhelming number of youth in foster care are also in the criminal justice system, and 40 per cent of litigants in family court also have ongoing criminal proceedings. For Justice Brownstone, the building blocks of an effective family court consist of an integrated domestic violence court, one that holistically and therapeutically addresses family matters and reconciles issues of criminality.


Justice Brownstone asked students to “listen” to litigants – the true should-be architects of the system – whose concerns they hear and frustrations they witness through PBSC projects such as the Family Law Project. His call to action was directed at judges, who he indicated must engage in meaningful dialogue and provide mentoring opportunities for law students in an effort to increase access to justice.


 Grant Wedge’s call the action was to remove the “little things that become barriers.” Grant highlighted the “Lawyers Feed the Hungry” initiative at the Law Society of Upper Canada, where lawyers donate their time and distribute meals to low-income residents in Toronto, Ottawa, London and Windsor. It became evident to volunteers in the program that individuals coming for a meal often lack photo identification necessary to obtain health and social services. The Law Society has therefore partnered with PBSC, Pro Bono Ontario, and a national law firm in an exciting “identification clinic” aimed at helping clients fill out the requisite paper work for photo ID.


Grant also discussed a project building alliances between rural libraries and law libraries, acknowledging the potential of public libraries as sites for legal literacy. In this way, the project helps bridge the “digital divide” by providing a human face to help marginalized peoples, who often don’t have access to computer, know how to perform a search, or understand search contents.


Grant reminded us that even when we become practicing lawyers, we must continue to be engaged with our communities in order to be attuned to the little things that become barriers, and strive for “reconciliation” where everyone truly views the system as a justice system.


Lama Sabbagh implored students to “get involved” in their communities, both to make a social contribution and to develop their own professional skills. Lama is a McCarthy Tétrault Associate with a business practice who has worked on several pro bono files at the firm. Most recently she has supported Syrian refugees in filling out technical government forms as well as assisting them with launching business ventures. Lama also emphasized the need for lawyers to move to plain English drafting, which is increasingly demanded by all types of clients and can be seen as a basic aspect of access to justice.


Lama’s presentation was an inspiring demonstration of how pro bono and Bay street can and do work hand in hand. McCarthy Tétrault gives pro bono hours the same weight as billable hours in compensating lawyers, and recognizes that pro bono cases provide young lawyers with opportunities to engage with areas and issues in law they would not otherwise be exposed to. Furthermore, the firm recruits lawyers who demonstrate leadership, passion and intensity, qualities often demonstrated by PBSC students.


Nikki Gershbain’s call to action was around creating a cultural shift that embeds pro bono work in legal education. Nikki commended American law schools for a well-developed pro bono infrastructure that instills in students a sense that pro bono work is a necessary aspect of legal education. While PBSC places almost 1,650 students in pro bono projects, the vast majority of Canadian law students – including almost 900 that were on PBSC’s waitlist – are left to navigate for themselves how to fit pro bono work into their routine.


 Nikki also discussed the need for the justice system to improve the experience of self-represented litigants (SRLs) as the majority experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, distress, and isolation by going through the legal system. PBSC has been working with Dr. Julie Macfarlane at the University of Windsor in a pilot project to “coach” SRLs who are equipped with the necessary skill and education to make their own case. Students work under the close supervision of lawyers and identify eligible individuals, and provide them with legal information, referrals, note-taking at court, and other supports. But Nikki reminded us that despite the stresses posed by law school and the legal system, students should “be zen” about the challenges we face.


To thank our guest speakers for their participation in the event, PBSC made a donation in each of their names to Lawyers Feed the Hungry program at the Law Society of Upper Canada. PBSC is sincerely grateful for the participation and support of all our volunteers, funders, and sponsors and hopes this event has left us all with food for thought on how to increase access to justice.


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