In this issue of LawNow, the Special Report focuses on Public Interest Standing in courts and other tribunals. That got me thinking about public interest law in general. The Career Development Office of the University of Toronto says:
Public interest or social justice law has been described as legal work on behalf of individuals, groups, and causes that are underserved by the for-profit bar. Within the broad scope of its definition, public interest practice includes work done by legal clinics, boards, agencies, commissions, and all levels of government, as well as private practice firms and lawyers who define the majority of their clients as public-interest or social justice causes.
Under this definition, law in the public interest can encompass numerous areas of the law: criminal law, civil rights, consumer law, family law, international law, environmental law, human rights and more. This article begins by presenting some examples of organizations dedicated to law practiced in the public interest followed by a few interesting projects in this domain.
First it is important to emphasize that this is by no means an exhaustive or even thorough examination of organizations involved in public interest law. It is merely an attempt to give a taste of the wide variety of work being done by lawyers, law students and other parties interested in how the law can support a better world.
In the area of criminal law, the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC) has a mandate to identify, advocate for, and exonerate individuals who have been convicted of a crime they did not commit and to prevent wrongful convictions through legal education and reform.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association was constituted to promote respect for and observance of fundamental human rights and civil liberties, and to defend, extend, and foster recognition of these rights and liberties. Their program areas include education, fundamental freedoms, public safety, national security and equality.
There are two national organizations advocating for the interests of consumers in some overlapping areas. The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) provides legal and research services on behalf of consumer interests, and, in particular, vulnerable consumer interests, concerning the provision of important public services. It has done work related to online transactions, energy, financial services, telecom, and privacy. The Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) is based at the University of Ottawa. CIPPIC’s mandate is to advocate in the public interest on diverse issues arising at the intersection of law and technology. Its website outlines work done in copyright, privacy, telecom policy, electronic surveillance, open information, digital expression, cyber spam and security, identity theft, accessibility and consumer protection. The FAQs provided in each of these sections would be of particular interest to the general public.
Much legal work is done across the country to support women who are victims of violence so it may be unfair to highlight just one. However, those interested in this topic may be inspired by the work of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic which offers legal representation, professional counselling and multilingual interpretation to women who have experienced violence in the Greater Toronto Area.
In the area of international law, there is the Canadian Centre for International Justice (CCIJ). It works with survivors of genocide, torture and other atrocities to seek redress and bring perpetrators to justice. It also assists people with close relationships to victims who died as a result of human rights violations or who are unable to contact CCIJ on their own.
The health of our natural environment is certainly an area of public interest in which the law has a role to play. Ecojustice provides legal services free-of-charge to charities and citizens on the front lines of the environmental movement, helping ensure equitable access to environmental justice nationwide. Meanwhile, in Alberta, the Environmental Law Centre works to ensure that Alberta’s laws, policies and legal processes sustain a healthy environment. It helps community groups understand and use legal tools to advance their concerns; works with policy-makers at all levels of government to create better processes for making environmental decisions; and provides free advice and education to people who have questions about a broad range of topics including pesticide use and conserving greenspace in cities, impacts of gravel pits, saving agricultural land or addressing the impacts of the oilsands.
In the area of human rights, one prominent organization is Amnesty International Canada whose mission is to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end grave abuses of human rights and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated.
At the risk of having this article go on too long, I want to point out a small sample of projects which underline the diversity of work being done in public interest law.
That’s Not Fair! is a series developed by the Canadian Civil Liberties Education Trust for kids, ages 7 to 11. The series includes animated videos, gamesand lessons to introduce children to critical thinking and the habits of democracy.
In B.C., the Atira Women’s Resource Society produced “Your Rights on Reserve” – A Legal Tool-kit for Aboriginal Women in British Columbia (PDF). The tool-kit includes chapters on taxation, employment issues on Reserve, social assistance / welfare, education, Indian Status, Band membership, Reserve land and housing issues, wills and estates issues, family law, relationship violence, Ministry of Children and Families Development and governance issues.
Across the country, the need for clear, thorough family law information for people who are representing themselves in court has been identified as an access to justice issue. Thanks to the work of a variety of organizations, three provinces now have dedicated family law websites: Family Law in British Columbia, Family Law NB, and Family Law Nova Scotia.
Also in the area of support for those representing themselves in court, Pro Bono Law Alberta, the Canadian Bar Association – Alberta Branch, and members of the judiciary from the Alberta Courts, worked together to produce four educational videos which provide unrepresented claimants with short, easy to understand instructions about basic courtroom procedures, processes, etiquette and other useful information.
Family Law Education for Women targeted a very specific demographic with Working with Your Lawyer: Advocacy Tips for Women with Disabilities and Deaf Women Dealing with Family Law Issues which is available in print or video (American Sign Language).
As you can see from these few examples, law in the public interest is alive and well in Canada.