Better Together: The Virtues of Experiential Learning Partnerships

The University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, Common Law Section, is celebrating two important anniversaries this year: the English Common Law Program’s 60th and the French Common Law Program’s 40th anniversary. Reflecting on a law school’s history and development naturally leads one to ponder the changing nature of legal education and the evolving functions law schools serve in Canadian society. If lawyers bear the honorable burden of maintaining the public trust in the administration of justice – a trust they earn through competence and integrity – then the function of law schools must be to equip law students to achieve their full potential and to meet the responsibilities of their privilege. Our task is to train lawyers that are highly skilled, well-informed critical thinkers, as well as engaged, compassionate citizens.

As my distinguished predecessor, Nathalie Des Rosiers, opined in her insightful contribution to this series, law schools do well when they ambitiously offer their students a broad range of opportunities to acquire a variety of professional, personal and intercultural competencies. I wholeheartedly agree, and I would add that law schools can best achieve this goal through partnerships and collaboration. In training tomorrow’s lawyers and judges, law schools can optimize the relevance and impact of the education they offer by collaborating with members of the profession, civil society and with each other. Through innovative experiential learning partnerships, law schools extend beyond their walls and marshal a wider range of expertise and perspectives, to the greater benefit of every party involved. Experiential learning partnerships allow students to gain real-world skills, while working on real-world issues and ideally, making meaningful contributions to their communities. It is often said that it takes a village to raise a child. Similarly, I submit that it takes more than a law school to train the kind of lawyers and judges that Canadian communities need and deserve: jurists that are proficient in the law in addition to being sensitive and responsive to the societal challenges we collectively face.

Three recent uOttawa initiatives – the Refugee Sponsorship Support Program (Refugee SSP) and the Certification de common aw en français (CCLF), and the Programme de pratique du droit (PPD) – highlight how partnerships between law schools, the profession and community actors have the benefit of allowing students to develop a broader blend of legal skills and competencies and to contribute to their communities, all while keeping our institutions at the vanguard of legal education.

Refugee SSP

The University of Ottawa’s Refugee Hub was founded in 2012 by Professor Jennifer Bond. It aims to provide insights, connections, and mobilization relating to pressing refugee issues at a local, national, and international levels. The Refugee Hub is now home to several major flagship initiatives, including the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (GRSI).

In response to unprecedented global refugee crisis, Professor Bond and the Refugee Hub, together with a team of volunteer lawyers and legal experts, developed an innovative collaborative model, bringing together law students, lawyers and refugee sponsorship experts, to address a clear and pressing access to justice need in Canada. The Refugee Sponsorship Support Program (SSP) facilitates private sponsorship so that more refugees can come to Canada safely. Through the delivery of lawyer and law student training, direct sponsorship group support, and public information, the SSP has mobilized more than 1375 lawyers and law students throughout Canada. These volunteers provide bono legal support to Canadians navigating Canada’s powerful, but technically complex, private sponsorship process. Since its inception only two short years ago, the SSP has known overwhelming success. It has provided in-depth support to over 1500 sponsorship groups across Canada, offered summary advice to thousands more groups and individuals, and established 11 local chapters.

Law students from the University of Ottawa, Osgoode Hall, the University of Toronto, the University of Alberta, the University of Victoria, Queen’s University, the University of Windsor, the University of Calgary, the University of New Brunswick, and Dalhousie University have participated in the SSP training program, gaining valuable insight in refugee law, client support, and social justice. In addition, the University of Ottawa, Windsor Law, Osgoode Hall, and the University of Toronto (Downtown Legal Services) have all run dedicated upper-year law-school courses or clinical programs linked to the SSP, enabling students to undertake hands-on legal work in support of the Refugee SSP as part of their formal education. Students work in the community, and receive expert-led training on the private sponsorship program and refugee law.

The remarkable success of the SSP in the face of the global refugee crisis should serve as a source of inspiration. By participating in such innovation through collaboration, law schools can not only train first-rate law reformers and outstanding citizens, but be the drivers of social change.

Certification de common law en français (CCLF)

Despite recent Census data showing that the English-French bilingualism rate in Canada has reached record rates at 17.9%, French-speaking communities outside Quebec continue to experience barriers when accessing justice in French. Many Francophones remain unaware of their right to French language services or uncertain as to how to exercise those rights. While courts are making progress in certain areas of the country, the judicial apparatus is not always user-friendly for Francophone litigants and lawyers. Proceedings in French tend to be long, difficult and costly. As a result, Francophones parties often hesitate to exercise their right to proceed in the French because there is a lingering perception that it would somehow annoy the court and thereby undermine their chances of getting a fair hearing in a legal system that sometimes appears unwelcoming to the other official language.

Part of the challenge is ensuring that Canadian lawyers from coast to coast understand the importance of our official languages in the practice of law in Canada and their corresponding professional obligations to bilingual clients. Law schools throughout Canada are increasingly rising to this challenge.

Launched in the fall of 2016 in partnership with the University of Saskatchewan College of Law, the CCLF gives bilingual students of that law school the unique opportunity to obtain a Certification in French Common Law from the University of Ottawa during the completion of their three-year J.D. Students gain valuable skills in French legal writing and advocacy as well as a deep understanding of the important issues surrounding language rights in Canada. Students complete an exchange in Ottawa, compete in a moot court competition with teams throughout Canada, are paired with experienced mentors in the legal profession, and have the opportunity to complete a credited internship with Saskatchewan law firms, organizations and government offices that work in both official languages. The CCLF gives students the chance to develop practical skills all while contributing to the vibrancy of fransaskaskois communities.

The University of Ottawa French Common Law Program also offers courses en français at the Faculties of Law at the University of Calgary, the University of Alberta, and the Peter Allard School of Law of the University of British-Columbia. Since 2016, more than 30 law students in Western Canada have taken these new French-language common law classes and the demand for more similar opportunities is steadily increasing.

Equipped with important knowledge of the law in both official languages and a richer understanding of language rights in Canada, CCLF students stand out on the job market and are poised to become the bilingual lawyers and judges that the Canadian legal system requires.

Programme de pratique du droit (PPD)

Finally, our Programme de pratique du droit (the French version of the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Law Practice Program) is another shining example of experiential legal learning rooted in community partnerships. The promotion of access to justice in French has been a core value of the program since its inception inception in 2014. Since that time, more than 300 Francophone lawyers have been involved in training PPD candidates and supporting our institutional commitment to producing lawyers that are able to meet the needs of minority Francophone populations throughout Canada. Every year, the PPD organizes a different access to justice initiative, allowing candidates to acquire practical skills while serving the community. For example, in 2016, PPD candidates travelled north to Sudbury, Ontario to offer a bilingual “Pop-Up Legal Clinic” in the downtown area, in collaboration with the local Legal Aid Office and Community Legal Clinic. In just two days, PPD candidates provided legal information in French and Engligh to nearly 75 local residents. This year’s access to justice initiave is equally exicting. Working in collaboration with l’Associtation des jurists d’expression française de l’Ontario (AJEFO) and the Ottawa Legal Information Centre, candidates will study the access to justice needs of Francophone communities across the province and propose innovative solutions to the enduring challenges they face.

We are extremely proud of the sucessful results that our community approach to legal training yields. Indeed, the PPD is becoming the preferred choice for many French speaking LSUC candidates who understand that it is both an advantageous way to access the legal profession and to intergrate into communities.

The Refugee SSP, the CCLF and PPD demonstrate the power and potential of legal learning partnerships and will serve as models for the University of Ottawa as we continue to develop new effective means to train tomorrow’s lawyers and judges.

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