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Expanding the Role of Law School Clinics: Bonkalo and the House of Commons

Two recent reports have recommended expanding the role of law school clinics. The first was the Bonkalo Report released earlier this year which made recommendations for reform to the family law system in Ontario. The second was the recent report of the House of Commons Justice and Human Rights Committee, which examined the legal aid system in Canada.

Justice Bonkalo’s report (discussed in an earlier column) had this to say about family law programs at Ontario’s student legal clinics:

I was very impressed by the extensive and important work undertaken by law students, supported by lawyers, who are obviously committed to excellence in the family justice system. The role that student programs play in access to justice cannot be underestimated, but I am gravely concerned about the apparent lack of stable funding to support their continued existence and ability to provide family law services to the public…

Justice Bonkalo recommended that “The Ministry of the Attorney General and LAO should ensure continued funding to enable student programs like Pro Bono Students Canada’s Family Law Project and the student legal aid services societies to continue to operate and possibly even expand.”

Meanwhile, at the national level, the House of Commons Justice Committee has been examining access to the justice system. Part II of its report, released in early November, focused on legal aid in Canada.

The Justice Committee considered how to maximize the impact of federal legal aid funding. It noted that “… the federal role in implementing innovations in the provision of legal aid is limited as legal aid programs are within provincial and territorial jurisdiction. However, the federal government can play an important role in promoting innovation and sharing best practices.”

Recommendation 5 of the Justice Committee Report states:

The Committee recommends that the Department of Justice Canada facilitate greater information sharing between provinces and territories regarding best practices for the administration and delivery of legal aid services, with particular attention to expanding the role of law school and specialized clinics to increase access to justice.

Students serving in law school clinics require close supervision by lawyers. In addition to lawyers, clinics need space, staff, equipment, and supplies. If law school clinics are to expand their roles, they will need additional funding.

Most Canadian student legal clinics focus on what I call “the big three:” criminal, landlord and tenant, and small claims. Many cover other areas of law as well. I can foresee clinic expansion in a number of areas: family law, consumer law, employment law, public legal education, and mediation.

The Justice Committee report recommended major changes to the funding of civil legal aid from the federal government to the provinces. By removing civil legal aid funding from the Canada Social Transfer and funding it separately (as is done with criminal legal aid), the federal government can ensure that the provinces spend the funding on civil legal aid rather than on other priorities.

An injection of federal funding in civil legal aid can be one source for the expansion of the role of law school clinics, who can in turn provide the access to justice needed by Canadians.

The Justice Committee report envisioned information sharing and best practices for the administration and delivery of legal aid. This as a potential topic for research by law faculties.

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