Access to Justice: An Opportunity for Law Schools – Part 2

The CBA’s Equal Justice Report

In my last column, I focused on the Canadian Bar Association’s Access to Justice report released in December, entitled Equal Justice: Balancing the Scales (disclaimer – I am a member of the committee). The committee proposed 31 targets to achieve access to justice in Canada. The report can be found here.

Some of the access to justice targets involved Canadian law schools. They provide an opportunity for law faculties to modernize their curriculum while playing a significant role in the biggest legal issue of our generation.

In this column I will focus on some of the targets and actions for law schools proposed in the report.

Experiential Learning in Law Schools

Legal education in Canada has undergone little change in the past 50 years. The core course offerings are essentially the same, and the teaching methods (with some exceptions) are the same. However, the legal profession is undergoing rapid and fundamental change. Legal education has to change with it.

The Equal Justice Report calls for a substantial experiential learning experience to be mandatory for all law students by 2030. To that end, it suggests that the Federation of Law Societies include experiential learning in its competency requirements for the call to the bar.

As I mentioned in my last column, the Report also calls for student legal clinics serving low income persons to be created in every Canadian law school by 2020. This means that law schools in New Brunswick and Quebec need to create clinics. They are they only provinces without clinics in their law schools or in the process of creating them.

Clinics are not the only answer when it comes to experiential learning. They take a lot of resources and space. Simulations and placements are also capable of providing experiential learning. Placements have the additional benefit of promoting contact between law schools and the profession.

Centres of Excellence

Research in Canada on access to justice (and the legal profession generally) pales in comparison to that in the US. We need to up our game to produce the facts and evidence needed to make workable public policy in justice. To that end, the report calls for three centres of excellence based in Canadian law schools.

The key to establishing these centres is sustainable funding. We need to address this, and do it soon.

Access to Justice in the Law School Curriculum

The Equal Justice Report calls for law students to have a basic understanding of the issues relating to access to justice in Canada, and to know that fostering access to justice is an integral part of their professional responsibility.

To meet this target, the Access to Justice Committee calls for:

  • expanded access to justice in law school curricula;
  • the Council of Canadian Law Deans to support the development of such curricula;
  • Each law school to appoint a staff member to serve as champion/leader for engaging discussion between the school and justice system stakeholders, including the public, about the role of law schools in supporting equal access to justice.

Adding access to justice to the law school curriculum could be done in three ways:

  • through stand-alone courses on the issue (I am co-teaching such a course in January 2015);
  • integrating it as a theme in substantive courses;
  • clinical courses.

Adding access to justice to curricula will take a serious commitment from the law deans and faculties. Do they see access to justice as a serious issue? Are they prepared to take action? This will be a litmus test for law schools to address what I believe to be the most serious legal issue for our generation.

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