PBSC’s Family Law Project: 20 years of law student pro bono

What is the Family Law Project (FLP)?

 

The FLP is one of PBSC’s signature initiatives, an innovative and multiple award-winning program that for the past 20 years has been providing meaningful access to the family court system for unrepresented litigants. In 2016-17, the FLP operated in 12 cities and engaged 155 law student volunteers who completed over 3,500 court forms and helped clients navigate the complex family legal system. Over the last two decades, the FLP has evolved into an expansive and effective program that combines legal assistance in a high priority area of law with an unbundled model of service delivery.

 

Working in the courts or in community settings, students assist primarily low-income, unrepresented family law litigants who do not qualify for legal aid, but who cannot otherwise afford representation. Among other things, our FLP students complete court forms, provide legal information, assist survivors of domestic violence, and provide court support. In their 2012 report, the National Self-Represented Litigant Project reported that 64% of family litigants were unrepresented at the outset of their cases.[1]  Judges, lawyers and family justice professionals suggest that over the past five years, the number of family litigants attempting to obtain justice without legal representation has increased, up to 80% in some jurisdictions.[2] Family law is an increasingly high-needs area and, without the help of our FLP students, many of these people would be on their own.

 

The FLP in Ontario

 

The FLP has partnered with Legal Aid Ontario since 1997, and has become an essential part of LAO’s family law duty counsel program in the Greater Toronto Area, Kingston, London and Windsor. Litigants first see an advice lawyer or a duty counsel about their claim. If the lawyer identifies their case as an appropriate one for PBSC students to work on, the litigant can sign up to meet with a student who helps draft materials based on the lawyer’s advice. Among other things, students can assist with custody, child support, access, refraining orders, restraining (non-harassment) orders, and non-removal orders. All of the students work under the direct supervision of family lawyers. Thanks to LAO’s generous funding contributions, PBSC is able to run the FLP at eight Ontario courthouses during the school year as well as hire eleven summer students who work fulltime at the courts from May to September.

 

National expansion

 

Over the last few years, PBSC has been able to expand the FLP both in Ontario and across other provinces including British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, and most recently, Quebec. This is due in large part to a multi-year Access to Justice grant from the Law Foundation of Ontario, as well as the participation of generous donors in our Campaign for Family Justice. The programs vary somewhat depending on location: students in Vancouver and Victoria assist lawyers in answering questions from clients online and over the telephone; students in Calgary, Winnipeg, London and Toronto assist survivors of domestic violence by providing legal information, documenting abuse and providing support and accompaniment services; students in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick help family law clients fill out their court forms and documents. PBSC is keen to pursue other opportunities for expansion and innovate in ways that respond to local needs.

 

Impact

 

By helping clients navigate court processes and complete legal documents, FLP students play a crucial role in alleviating some of the stress and uncertainty that unrepresented litigants experience. In fact, clients consistently rate our services as “very helpful” and the feedback we receive is universally positive. For example:

  • “I think this is a great service. It helps people like myself who cannot afford a lawyer with confusing forms and the process of my case.”

  • “The service provided by the students was excellent! They were professional, courteous. I felt valued, and that they really care to help me. Thank you so much for taking away the stress of this process.”

  • “Both students were very helpful with my case. Both students are impressive with their work ethic and I appreciate and am very thankful for their assistance.”

  •   “Thanks for being here.”

Students participating in the program gain a thorough understanding of family law and invaluable front-line experience by interviewing and assisting clients. Over 90% of student volunteers report that through the FLP experience they:

  • were able to make a difference in people’s lives;

  • improved their understanding of family law and associated legal processes; and

  • gained an appreciation for the access to justice challenges that people face.

In the words of one FLP student:

 

“The family law project was an amazing experience! I learned an enormous amount about family law and processes. The lawyers were supportive, and patient, helping me develop my understanding of family law. I was able to develop strong drafting skills and strong client management skills while learning about the struggles clients face in family law. I truly appreciate all that I have learned from my experience with the family law project and I hope that the project continues to be offered for future years. Thank you!”

In addition to the invaluable support that the FLP provides to family law litigants, the program improves the flow of court proceedings and positively impacts the administration of justice more broadly. Judges uniformly express their profound support for the program and appreciation for the students.

 

“Our Court, the largest and busiest family court in Canada, would literally not be able to function without the PBSC student volunteers.”

 

– Justice Harvey Brownstone, Ontario Court of Justice

 

Conclusion

 

I myself came to law school as a mature student, and following first year I attempted to resolve an ongoing child support matter by filing in family court as an unrepresented litigant. Even with some understanding of the law, I found the process of completing the forms to be intimidating and stressful. They are not intuitive and there are limited resources available to help complete this critical part of the process effectively. Now as an FLP student, I recognize the value we bring, helping people manage through what is an extremely challenging period in their lives. We regularly see parents with small children in tow, spending hours at the court, uncertain of how to proceed and not knowing what to expect. They are so grateful for the help and support that we provide; I consider it a privilege to assist them.

As the FLP celebrates its 20th anniversary, we are looking ahead to “what’s next” in the rapidly evolving arena of family law. The FLP is unique and impactful because it fulfils both short-term legal service needs and also contributes to the future of the profession by developing  law students’ client service, advocacy and legal drafting skills, and allowing  them to experience firsthand how they can increase access to justice.

 

 

 

 

[1] Macfarlane, J. (2013). The National Self-Represented Litigants Project: Identifying and Meeting the Needs of Self-Represented Litigants: Final Report at 33.  

[2] Boyd, J.-P.E., & Bertrand, L.D. (2014). Self-represented Litigants in Family Law Disputes: Contrasting the Views of Alberta Family Law Lawyers and Judges of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench. (Calgary, AB: Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family.)

 

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