Why I’m a Friend of the Ontario Community Legal Clinic System

For the last several years, I’ve been a member of an advisory group called Friends of the Community Legal Clinics. We support the community legal clinic system and we’re available to advise the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario (ACLCO). Many of the members have been closely involved with the system one way or the other, but my own connection is a bit different: I’m familiar with the system and have been for many years, but mostly I just believe strongly that people living in low income are very fortunate to have this system available to help them address legal problems that arise primarily because can’t afford legal assistance otherwise.

I had my first brush with Ontario’s community legal clinic system at Osgoode Hall Law School, when Professor Fred Zemans asked me to be his research assistant in 1979, my first year of law school. He was the first Director of Parkdale Community Legal Services, the first law school-connected clinic in Ontario and one of four in Canada, established in 1971. By 1979, over 30 clinics had been established; it was my job to visit them to contribute to the research and analysis that Professor Zemans would use in an article “Community Legal Clinics in Ontario: 1980, A Data Survey”. So in one sense, this was a “brush” with clinics, but in another, it was a deep dive into the details of all the clinics existing at the time. I became a fan of the system then and I remain one today.

Professor Zemans, aware of my interest in legal aid generally, invited me to legal aid roundtables he, with others, organized from time to time and I was able to attend even when I was in Fredericton as the Chair in Women and Law at UNB or in Calgary as dean of the law school. One of the first events I attended when I returned to Toronto from Calgary in 2007, to become the first executive director of the Law Commission of Ontario, was a legal aid conference. There I met quite a few people I’d known when I had lived in Toronto before I went to New Brunswick in 1992; they continued to work in the system. All along, I’d kept up to date with developments in the clinic system. When I started making the rounds of those who might be interested in the LCO’s work, who could contribute to it or benefit from it or both, I met with a number of the clinic directors, in part though the help of Lenny Abramowicz, the executive director of ACLCO.

Today, there are 74 clinics, some serving a specific geographic area, others “speciality” clinics serving particular communities (such as older adults, injured workers, Indigenous communities, persons living with disabilities, African-Canadians, Chinese and Southeast Asians, South Asian, persons living with HIV and AIDS and francophones). Right from the beginning, the LCO benefited considerably from the assistance of many sectors, legal and otherwise, with expertise and contacts related to its projects. Its project heads also met with hundreds of people affected by the various issues it addressed in its projects. (This may all still be the case; however, I left the LCO in December 2015 and, with one exception, have not had a connection with it since then.) Among the many contributors to LCO projects, clinics have been of enormous assistance in different ways that illustrate the depth of their expertise and the breadth of their connections to the community.

Geographically-based clinics made written submissions to almost the projects (if not all), bringing the everyday experience of their clients to the mix of factors the LCO considered in making recommendations. We heard from clinics all across Ontario, giving us insights that would have been very difficult to obtain otherwise. They knew about the struggles their clients faced — and members of the community in similar situations — because they dealt with them over and over again.

The specialized clinics revealed the depth of knowledge and commitment of their workers to serving their particular communities in numerous ways: some representatives served on advisory groups composed of members who reflected various and often conflicting views; a few clinics served on advisory groups in more than one project. Many made written submissions, several helped organized focus groups. We received more indepth analysis through research papers from a few clinics (the LCO paid for commissioned research).

In addition to what I learned about clinics through the LCO, I’ve also participated in some clinic events, which merely reinforced what I had seen in a more distant way. I made presentations for workshops organized by and served on advisory groups for research undertaken by Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO), for example.

Clinics’ locations encourage people who might otherwise be reluctant to seek legal help to approach them. Their boards of directors, coming from the community, can keep clinics apprised of developments that help the clinics ensure their work meets the needs of their clientele. I know that they have an impact beyond the individual clinic. Since I undertook the research for Fred Zemans many years ago, I’ve become more convinced than ever that Ontario is fortunate to have the clinic system as an integral part of legal aid, with a structure that reinforces respect for the communities they serve and, given the on-going relationship, enables them to respond to the changing challenges facing those communities.

Forty years after Professor Zemans introduced me to the community clinics, I continue to be a “Friend” of the community clinics, I’ve seen first hand how important the expertise they’ve developed is in providing legal services to those living on low income. My more peripheral contact with other clinics confirms for me that the accumulated knowledge and understanding of the legal system that the clinics bring would be almost impossible, if possible at all, to duplicate.

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