Access to Justice on the Prairies

Access to justice is a hot topic, having been discussed on Slaw in the past few months here and here. Here in Winnipeg, the catalyst was the release of the 2008 United Nations Report, Making the Law Work for Everyone. Our response to this report is the Legal Help Centre.

Executive Director Karen Dyck envisions the Legal Help Centre as a place “… to assist disadvantaged members of our community to access and exercise their legal and social rights.” This agency will help people determine their next course of action in solving a problem, which may not even require a lawyer. Karen Dyck likens it to a “triage” service, where people can meet with someone who will listen to their problem, and then direct them to the proper channels, whether it’s getting your landlord to turn on the heat, or something for the Manitoba Ombudsman’s office. So many organizations are available to help resolve problems, yet most people aren’t aware of them, or don’t know the right language to use to get the help they need. The Legal Help Centre’s goal is to fill that void.

The centre has amassed support from a veritable who’s who of the Manitoba legal community. The Honourable Madam Justice Suche of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench is president of the board, and Sarah Lugtig, a Crown Attorney with Manitoba Justice is vice president. Sherri Walsh, a partner with Hill Sokalski Vincent Walsh Trippier LLP is a board advisor on the Community Resource Committee. What I think is most unique about it, however, is its multi-disciplinary approach, recognizing the sociological aspect of many legal problems. The University of Manitoba Law School, in conjunction with the Faculty of Social Work, has created a course for students in both programs. Completion of coursework will require a practicum involving volunteering with the Legal Help Centre. As well, students and faculty of the University of Winnipeg’s Global College and Departments of Criminal Justice and Conflict Resolution Studies will be tapped to help fill the many volunteer hours required to staff such a huge operation.

This summer the centre received a grant to hire two law students. They created a database of agencies and organizations that already provide the services potential clients will need. This illustrateded one of the challenges facing the Legal Help Centre: running on a shoestring budget, lacking even the funding to purchase licenses for the necessary software, and relying on open source and freeware like Google docs applications instead. Financial support has come from several law firms in the form of a per lawyer donation for start-up, as well as office furniture (from Tapper Cuddy LLP) and office space from the University of Winnipeg. Grant applications have been made to numerous foundations for operating funds.

Some of the programming the centre is working on is partnering with Pro Bono Students Canada to design a clinic to assist people bringing an action in small claims court. They’re also working on a family law clinic for self-represented litigants.

The Legal Help Centre plans to be in business by mid-January 2011. The University of Winnipeg has offered the physical space, and Karen Dyck is hoping for a storefront location to make it easier for people to find. While there isn’t a website yet, you can connect with the centre on Twitter – @legalhelpcentre.

For more reading:

News release: Legal Help Centre

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