Legal Aid Ontario announced recently that it was committing $2 million to the six legal clinics at Ontario law schools to allow them to create or expand family law services.
This is the kind of creative thinking that we need in the justice system as we tackle the issue of our generation in law: access to justice. But it’s not just access to justice that will be improved; students will receive the experiential education that will enhance what they learn in the classroom.
Our clinic here at Western Law is one of the recipients of this grant. We have used the funding to hire a lawyer to run our new family law program, as well as a summer student. With a team of 15 students taking on files, we are already over half way to our goal of 50 files.
Here in London, it is estimated that 60-70% of family law parties are self-represented. Such large numbers can only slow down the movement of files through the system. Family law in Ontario has complex rules surrounding the court record and the way cases are managed. Through no fault of their own, self-represented litigants slow down the system and place more pressure on the judiciary.
The Canadian Bar Association’s Access to Justice Committee’s report Reaching Equal Justice recommended that law schools “offer substantial learning opportunities for experiential learning in the access to justice context.” That is exactly what will be happening in Ontario’s student legal clinics. Most students will be:
- Interviewing clients
- Drafting pleadings
- Attending hearings with a clinic lawyer or on their own
- Attending mediations
- Negotiating separation agreements.
I expect that these law students will be getting more hands-on experience than most articling students, and with the strong and direct supervision they will receive, it will make them better lawyers once they are called to the bar.
These grants are a winner all around. Clients receive legal services they would otherwise lack. Law students get the valuable hands on experience they crave. LAO meets its goals of enhancing legal services for low income persons at an affordable cost. And the justice system will get a little more efficient.
This is just one small step towards reaching access to justice for all. It demonstrates that governments can improve access to justice at a relatively low cost.
It also serves to show that law schools have a role to play in access to justice. I have seen through the years that law students have an incredible amount of energy and dedication. They are part of the solution to the problem.
Law schools can take a much bigger leadership role in access to justice through research, clinics, and curriculum reform. In doing so, they would have the enthusiastic support of their students and the profession.
This is a good start. But we’re not yet what Churchill called “the end of the beginning.” We are at the beginning of the beginning. Which law school is prepared to lead?