Student Legal Assistance - LawNow Magazine

Student Legal Assistance

Celebrating 40 Years of Providing Access to Justice in Calgary and Area

In 1979, a small group of law students at the then newly minted law school at the University of Calgary formed a non-profit society to focus on access to justice for low-income Calgary and area residents. Forty years later, Student Legal Assistance (SLA) is a registered charity and still going strong with over 100 law student volunteer caseworkers serving over 600 clients per year with their legal matters.

Located in Murray Fraser Hall at the UCalgary campus, Student Legal Assistance plays an important role in providing access to justice for disadvantaged and marginalized groups who otherwise would be left unrepresented or would remain self-represented.

In recognizing the 40 years of SLA at UCalgary Faculty of Law, Dean Ian Holloway says:

We are proud to have Student Legal Assistance as such an integral component of the clinical legal education program at the UCalgary Faculty of Law for the past 40 years. SLA provides our law students with the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to access to justice for low income Calgary and area residents while building a strong ethic of pro bono legal service.

What We Do

2019 SLA summer clinic student team. Photo Credit: Student Legal Assistance.

Legal services are delivered directly to clients by UCalgary Faculty of Law student caseworkers. These student caseworkers provide information and representation within the limits set out in the Rules of the Law Society of Alberta. This includes agency representation:

  • in the Provincial Court of Alberta in criminal, family, traffic and civil matters;
  • at certain administrative tribunals; and
  • in a variety of outreach programs.

SLA takes on adult clients that meet the fee eligibility guidelines and whose needs are within the scope of legal services that law students can provide.

SLA caseworkers provide agency representation in family law matters heard in the Provincial Court Family Division. This includes cases relating to child access (parenting, guardianship and contact orders), child maintenance orders, and Maintenance Enforcement orders. SLA student caseworkers regularly make appearances in the Family Division and are involved in alternate dispute resolution in family law matters, such as mediation and Judicial Dispute Resolution. SLA cannot assist clients in family matters heard in the Court of Queen’s Bench, such as contested divorces, disputes on matrimonial assets, or spousal support applications. As well, SLA student caseworkers do not assist in matters where Child Protection Services or Emergency Protection Orders are involved.

The highest proportion of client files opened and agency representation provided by SLA caseworkers is in the Provincial Court Criminal Division. Forty-eight percent of SLA’s files are criminal law matters. SLA can assist with low complexity summary conviction criminal matters where the Crown Prosecutor is not seeking a custodial sentence upon conviction. SLA can provide representation in court on charges such as impaired driving, refusal to provide a breath sample, assault, mischief charges, and other summary conviction matters. When there is a possibility of incarceration if found guilty, SLA refers the individual to Legal Aid Alberta for representation by a lawyer.

… Student Legal Assistance plays an important role in providing access to justice for disadvantaged and marginalized groups who otherwise would be left unrepresented or remain self-represented.Provincial Court Civil Division (Small Claims) is another area where law student caseworkers can assist eligible clients. Assisting clients in civil law matters makes up approximately fifteen percent of SLA’s total files. Students help clients resolve disputes relating to consumer contracts, wrongful dismissal, debt collection agencies, and other civil law matters. SLA can assist plaintiffs with drafting their Civil Claim (up to $50,000). SLA can also assist defendants who are being sued in the Civil Division.

The majority of SLA’s civil matters are landlord and tenant disputes. SLA may represent the landlord or the tenant, and regularly provides agency representation at Residential Tenancy Dispute Resolution Service (RTDRS) hearings or in Provincial Court.

Another key aspect of SLA’s operations is its Outreach Program. Law student caseworkers regularly attend at locations of community partners to provide information and offer legal services to their clients. These organizations include CUPS (Calgary Urban Project Society), Alpha House, Inn from the Cold, and Dream Centre.

The Trial Confirmation (Duty Counsel) Project is a joint program between SLA and Calgary Legal Guidance to inform self-represented criminally accused persons of their options and make sure they are ready to proceed on their trial date. Trial Confirmation hearings are scheduled in Courtroom 507 at the Calgary Court Centre every Friday morning and afternoon for all low complexity criminal trial matters. Senior SLA caseworkers appear at the Trial Confirmation hearings to help self-represented accused persons navigate the legal system. There will often be as many as 15-20 accused persons on the docket needing guidance and direction from an SLA student.

Forty-eight percent of SLA’s files are criminal law matters.SLA also runs a summer clinic from early May to mid-August each year. This summer, SLA employed 15 summer law student caseworkers. These law student caseworkers worked full-time serving clients in all of the above areas of law and provided intake interviews for clients on the 3rd floor of the Calgary Court Centre.

The People of SLA

The SLA Student Director for 2019-2020 is Brad Webber, a 3rd year law student. Brad leads the volunteer caseworker team, providing training and support. He summarizes his experience at SLA as follows:

SLA has enriched my student experience at law school particularly in understanding a legal problem from the perspective of the client. At SLA and in the UCalgary Law clinical program, the focus is on access to justice and building skills in our law student caseworkers that takes what we have learned in the classroom and puts it into practice.

The law student caseworkers and the articling student at SLA deliver legal services under the supervision of a team of advising lawyers. The advising lawyers are the backbone of what we do at SLA. They provide individual guidance to our law student caseworkers on each of their client files, from opening the file through to resolution, whether it is a trial or negotiated settlement, and all the steps in-between.

Family and civil law lawyer Sandra Hildebrand has been an advising lawyer with SLA for 16 years:

I have seen so many dedicated and committed law student caseworkers serve thousands of low income clients who would otherwise be without legal guidance. It is truly inspirational to see law students have such a commitment to serve these marginalized clients. Every time I come to SLA, I learn something from the students that provides me with a new perspective on my own practice.

SLA is also so fortunate to have a tremendous volunteer Board of Directors, amazing administrative staff, and the support of over 150 volunteer lawyers, many of whom are SLA alumni. SLA’s volunteer lawyers provide supervision in the evening client intake interviews and in a variety of programs at SLA.

Celebrating 40 Years

Forty years of providing access to justice is worth celebrating. Student Legal Assistance will mark the occasion with a gala on October 23, 2019 featuring keynote speaker the Honourable Sheilah Martin of the Supreme Court of Canada. Justice Martin will speak on “Using Law to Make a Difference”. For more information on SLA and the gala, visit the SLA website.


Susan V.R. Billington
Susan V.R. Billington
Susan V.R. Billington, Q.C., is the Executive Director of Student Legal Assistance in Calgary, Alberta.

Michelle De Cambra
Michelle De Cambra is the 2019-2020 articling student with Student Legal Assistance in Calgary, Alberta.

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