Lawyers across Alberta spend countless hours each year volunteering with legal clinics and court programs to assist vulnerable individuals with their legal problems. Without help, these individuals would otherwise represent themselves – called self-represented litigants or SRLs. Volunteer lawyers play a critical role in ensuring fair access to our justice system.
Volunteer lawyers play an essential role in closing the gap in accessing justice for lower-income individuals.Many vulnerable individuals faced with a legal issue either abandon the fight for their rights or self-represent as they are unable to afford professional services. The Canadian Bar Association’s November 2013 report states that judges are concerned about SRLs as they are usually “unable to articulate their case” or “fail to address the issues that are probative.” The judges also noted that unrepresented litigants “are often overwhelmed by their emotions” and tend not to explore all possible scenarios. About 67% of SRLs reported that it was challenging to navigate the court system, and 49% of SRLs felt that self-representation made the process slower. In contrast, 72% of litigants represented by lawyers reported much better experiences and outcomes.
There is no simple solution to bridging the access to justice gap. It is a big puzzle requiring a re-evaluation of our current legal system. In the interim, volunteer lawyers play a critical role in minimizing the impact of the gap on marginalized individuals. Lawyers can volunteer their time providing pro bono legal services through community and student legal clinics, at courthouse-based programs, or within their practices. The Law Society of Alberta, which regulates lawyers in the province, encourages its members to engage in pro bono opportunities. Moreover, many lawyers feel an obligation to use their skills to serve those that cannot afford their services.
Clinics and courthouse-based programs rely significantly on the generosity of volunteer lawyers to provide free legal services in the community. We interviewed staff and volunteer lawyers from these organizations to get the inside scoop on the role of volunteer lawyers and pro bono organizations in the community.
Calgary Legal Guidance (CLG)
CLG’s staff and volunteers are always ready to assist Calgary residents who do not qualify for Legal Aid with their family, employment, small claims, immigration, and other matters. CLG facilitates evening and outreach clinics where volunteer lawyers provide 30-minute appointments of free legal advice. CLG also operates Dial-a-Law, a collection of recorded information on various legal topics. (This service was written and is updated by volunteer lawyers.) CLG believes that the law exists to empower individuals in finding a just outcome to their problems and not to create inequality in our communities.
Central Alberta Community Legal Clinic
Central Alberta Community Legal Clinic is headquartered in Red Deer and partners with other agencies in Ponoka, Medicine Hat, Fort McMurray, and Lloydminster to provide widespread legal support to smaller communities in Alberta. Volunteer lawyers give legal advice at evening clinics on matters related to family law, civil law, criminal law, wills, and other legal issues. Clients can chat with a lawyer for 30 minutes, following which they may receive further support from a paid staff lawyer.
Edmonton Community Legal Centre (ECLC)
ECLC addresses access to justice challenges in Edmonton by providing free legal information and advice to low and moderate-income people. ECLC assists with legal issues related to family, landlord and tenant, employment, human rights, debt, small claims, income support, and immigration matters. Volunteer lawyers provide free legal advice at evening clinics and provide legal information at presentations across the city. Pro bono services are supplemented by the work of paid staff lawyers who will further assist clients in some situations. ECLC also manages a legal clinic in Grande Prairie.
ECLC partners with the Association des juristes d’expression française de l’Alberta (AJEFA) to offer francophone services. Bilingual lawyers who are members of AJEFA meet with francophone clients at ECLC’s clinics. Volunteer bilingual lawyers also present ECLC’s legal information workshops to francophone communities.
Lethbridge Legal Guidance (LLG)
LLG assists individuals experiencing financial difficulty who need legal support but do not qualify for Legal Aid. Volunteer lawyers at evening clinics provide free legal assistance, information, and advocacy in matters relating to family law, civil law, employment law, immigration law, personal injury law, and criminal law.
Pro Bono Law Alberta (PBLA)
Volunteer lawyers, through the clinics, also present legal education workshops to the public to inform individuals of their rights, hopefully before a legal issue arises.PBLA promotes access to justice by fostering a pro bono culture in the legal profession. PBLA creates volunteer opportunities for lawyers and works with law firms to develop pro bono policies and projects. In Calgary and Edmonton, PBLA administers the Civil Claims Duty Counsel project and the Queen’s Bench Court Assistance Program. Volunteer lawyers staff these programs and support litigants dealing with civil matters at the courthouses in each city.
The benefits of volunteering are numerous. Volunteer lawyers play an essential role in closing the gap in accessing justice for lower-income individuals. The justice system can be challenging to navigate for individuals in financial crisis and even more so if they do not qualify for Legal Aid. As a result, individuals may feel the only option they have is to self-represent. The Canadian Bar Association’s November 2013 report estimates that in 1993 only about 5% of litigants were self-represented. Whereas in 2013, that number increased to a range between 10 to 80% of litigants – depending on the nature of the claim and level of court. This increase likely exists due to the unaffordability of legal services for many people. And so, this is where volunteer lawyers providing free legal services can help.
For example, ECLC’s operations would not be possible without 300 volunteer lawyers contributing over 4000 hours each year in providing free legal advice and public legal education. Moreover, 120 community and student volunteers donate over 5000 hours each year to help clients with their legal issues. This is in addition to time that paid staff support workers and lawyers provide to clients.
Lawyers report that volunteering at a legal clinic provides positive, life-changing experiences. We spoke with Gabriel Chen, Senior Counsel of Litigation Programs at CLG, who started in the organization as a volunteer lawyer. Volunteering at CLG provided him with some important lessons in helping marginalized individuals:
I started to see that a lot of people just get really difficult life circumstances [through] no fault or choice of their own, and how that really puts them at a disadvantage in just living life – much less trying to make it through the legal system or deal with the legal issue…I had to be open to learning about different cultures, about how trauma affects people, about how addictions and mental health can really affect a person’s judgment in order to be able to provide an effective representation for [clients].
Holly Juska, Partner at Ackroyd LLP, has been volunteering with the Civil Claims Duty Counsel (CCDC) project in Edmonton for seven years now and finds the experience very enriching:
The people who come to the program are often stressed and uncertain about the legal system, and they greatly appreciate having someone be able to explain how the system works, give advice, or even just provide an ear to listen. I believe that the practice of law goes beyond my work in the office and being able to provide this service is deeply rewarding on a personal and professional level. I feel that I am a better lawyer for having participated in CCDC.
Volunteering is also beneficial to a lawyer in terms of developing skills needed to succeed in their profession. Anthony Purgas, Partner at Reynolds Mirth Richards & Farmer LLP, encourages other lawyers to contribute some of their time to bettering our community. He shared with us his positive experience in volunteering with ECLC:
In my opinion, there is a social obligation to give back to our community, particularly given the access to justice issues throughout the country. ECLC provides a great opportunity to provide practical help to people who would otherwise likely not receive it. From a lawyering skills standpoint, I always recommend new lawyers volunteer with ECLC to hone their client interview management skills, as well as being able to think on your feet when completely unexpected legal issues arise. It helped me immeasurably early on in my career and I still find it valuable today. There are many different ways for lawyers to contribute their skills to the community but, in my opinion, ECLC is one of the best for its direct impact on people.
Marina Giacomin, Executive Director of CLG, recognizes how dedicated volunteer lawyers are in supporting their community. CLG has over 300 volunteer lawyers that donate a substantial amount of time helping individuals in need of legal assistance.
Providing pro bono legal services presents many challenges. While some lawyers may be used to clients with the means to pay, volunteer opportunities often reveal much different realities. Each client is different and so are their legal issues. In addition to financial barriers, individuals may face discrimination based on their race, ethnicity, gender identity, Aboriginal status, or being a newcomer to Canada. Additionally, individuals may suffer from substance abuse along with physical and mental health issues that further complicate their situation. Legal clinics and their volunteer lawyers understand that these barriers create many difficulties in obtaining proper access to justice, and they strive to help individuals overcome them. Merely addressing the legal problem is usually not enough.
Currently, ECLC is in the process of testing a model that has family law lawyers from Edmonton providing legal advice remotely via landline to northern Alberta residents. To help clients overcome social barriers, ECLC’s volunteer interpreters, domestic violence assessors, and paralegals often work in partnership with lawyers in aiding clients. Staff advocates also help to mitigate obstacles that can adversely impact the successful resolution of a client’s legal matter. In some cases, a client may require a legal practitioner to represent them on their legal matter. ECLC has six paid staff lawyers ready to provide continued representation. In addition, ECLC retains two annual articling students and a certified immigration consultant for additional support.
Another challenge for legal clinics is ensuring individuals have access to good legal information. Kathy Parsons, Executive Director of Central Alberta Community Legal Clinic, believes in the importance of building greater community awareness in locating legitimate legal resources online. To address this challenge, clinics share links to good legal information online, including the Centre for Public Legal Education’s resources. Volunteer lawyers, through the clinics, also present legal education workshops to the public to inform individuals of their rights, hopefully before a legal issue arises.
Legal clinics and programs are constantly evolving in how they provide pro bono services to the community.
One opportunity is maximizing the time the client can discuss their legal issue with the volunteer lawyer. ECLC staff members conduct interviews with clients before their 45-minute meeting with a lawyer to understand their legal issues and to obtain background information. Before the meeting, this information is shared with the volunteer lawyer so they can get right to providing legal advice. During the scheduling of a follow-up appointment, ECLC staff reviews the legal recommendations from the previous meeting and determines if the client has followed through on them. ECLC conducted outcome evaluations for the past few years in order to determine how effective their system was in helping clients. They learned that their clients greatly improved their understanding of their legal rights and responsibilities, and the pros and cons of different legal options. Moreover, two months after their clinic appointment, over 85% of clients have followed some or all the advice received, and over 90% would return if they encountered another legal problem.
Another opportunity is providing pro bono services to rural and remote communities. Currently, ECLC is in the process of testing a model that has family law lawyers from Edmonton providing legal advice remotely via landline to northern Alberta residents. Clients who cannot conveniently travel to a legal clinic because they are unable to leave their homes or because of geographical distance could benefit tremendously from this project. Through this project, ECLC and its volunteer lawyers can assist more Albertans in need of legal assistance.
… there still exists a shortage of lawyers to ensure that marginalized individuals are provided with proper access to justice.In aiming to serve all of central Alberta, Central Alberta Community Legal Clinic works with smaller community partners, so out-of-town residents can speak with a lawyer without having to travel to Red Deer. A way that the clinic achieves this is by connecting small-town clients with legal practitioners on Skype through one of their partner locations. Down the line, partner locations will continue providing further assistance to clients as needed.
Legal clinics also make it easy for lawyers to volunteer. At CLG, no matter a lawyer’s experience or availability, the clinic will find something suitable for those looking to donate their time and talent. CLG has a variety of opportunities for volunteer lawyers like writing public legal information materials, giving legal advice, or even acting as duty counsel in court for their clients. In addition, lawyers can also sit on CLG’s board committee to help support their operations. For CLG, it is important that lawyers are properly accommodated so that they can have a truly rewarding volunteer experience.
Finally, lawyers volunteering their time to provide legal advice and information reflect positively on the legal profession. During our conversation, Marina Giacomin stated that she hopes that the work happening at CLG can help change unfavourable stereotypes about lawyers in our society.
It is the dedication shown by so many volunteer lawyers in Alberta that protects vulnerable individuals from slipping through the cracks of our justice system. Pro bono legal services provided by volunteer lawyers, in conjunction with the hard work of staff, at legal clinics are hugely beneficial to society.
This work also has a profound effect on the volunteers and staff themselves. Marina Giacomin found that after being involved with the amazing work going on at CLG, her perspective on the law changed dramatically:
I used to be maybe one of those people who would see a story in the news or on social media about somebody who has allegedly committed a crime, and I might have joined the mob mentality…I really started to think about those things differently, so now when I see a story like that and I read the comments, I’m thinking more to myself: I wonder if the lawyer is doing this and gosh I sure hope that they apply the Gladue principles and things that I would never ever have known before. I feel like I have a much more objective view on what people do and why they do it and all of our constitutional rights – to be fairly represented.
For Kathy Parsons, helping less fortunate members of our society remains one of the most rewarding aspects of working for Central Alberta Community Legal Clinic:
I think it’s actually knowing at the end of the day that you either did something yourself, or help facilitate other staff members or community volunteers to have an impact on somebody’s life that would be positive and could have a long-term improvement in their outcomes.
Volunteer lawyers remain essential to the successful operation of Alberta’s pro bono organizations, but there still exists a shortage of lawyers to ensure that marginalized individuals are provided with proper access to justice. Debbie Klein, Executive Director of ECLC, acknowledges the need for more volunteer lawyers to help bridge the access to justice gap: “We can easily use a hundred more volunteer lawyers.”
If you are a lawyer looking for volunteer opportunities in your community, we encourage you to contact your local community clinic or public legal education organization.