The View from Here: Access to Justice and Community Legal Clinics

Article excerpt


Community legal clinics offer important perspectives on access to justice because of their proximity to, and relationships with, the people and communities who are so often the subject of the debate. In this article, I focus on three broad and interrelated insights about access to justice that I have gained as a result of my work at Community Legal Assistance Services for Saskatoon Inner City (CLASSIC), and through my reading of the "community lawyering" scholarship. (1) First, from a community legal clinic perspective, access to justice cannot be understood "out of context". That is, close attention to historical, economic, political, and social context is a crucial part of grappling with the problem of access to justice. Second, a community legal clinic perspective reveals that an engaged consideration of "community" is foundational to any conception of access to justice. Third, the struggle for access to justice demands "long-haul" (2) commitment by advocates at community legal clinics. Overall, these insights reveal the problem of access to justice as only one thread in a complicated web of social injustice, impossible to untangle without addressing the larger web. These insights also tend to unsettle dominant visions of access to justice, which often focus on access to formal dispute resolution institutions and to disassociate access to justice from other social, economic and political problems. Ultimately, these insights have implications for the ways in which lawyers working in the community understand their place in broader struggles for justice.

CLASSIC and the Model of the Community-Based Legal Clinic

CLASSIC was founded in 2007 as a result of the efforts of a small group of University of Saskatchewan law students. Seeking to establish a clinical law program, these students were inspired by the community-based model of long standing legal clinics in Canada, including Parkdale Community Legal Services in Toronto. (3) From the outset, the students sought to build relationships with various community groups and especially First Nations and Metis organizations: this emphasis on relationship building is a factor that CLASSIC points to as a crucial aspect of its success. (4) Indeed, as writers such as Nancy Cook and John Calmore have pointed out, it is crucial that lawyers not assume their right to enter into communities, but rather must work to ascertain whether there is an invitation to participate. (5) By intentionally seeking out invitation and location within the low-income community that it serves, CLASSIC is similar to many other community legal clinics in Canada and beyond. As Nancy Cook describes, a key feature of community legal clinics is their location in neighbourhoods that are home to the people they seek to serve. (6) Originally, CLASSIC was located within the White Buffalo Youth Lodge, a multipurpose youth and community centre. CLASSIC soon outgrew its original location at the White Buffalo Youth Lodge and moved to a storefront space a few blocks away in the spring of 2011.

At the present time, CLASSIC offers two main legal services programs. The first is the "Walk-in Advocacy Clinic". As its name suggests, the program functions on a walk-in basis, with clinical law students conducting initial client intake. If the client's legal matter falls into CLASSIC's areas of practice and the client is eligible financially, the case is assigned to a law student who works closely with one of CLASSIC's supervising lawyers on every aspect of the client's matter. (7) CLASSIC represents people in summary criminal matters, residential tenancies disputes, immigration and refugee law, social assistance, prison law, wills and estates matters, and many other areas of law. The clinical law class is a full-year, 6-credit class with an enrollment of 25 students, and there is an additional advanced clinical law course as well. CLASSIC's second main program is the "Legal Advice Clinic", where volunteer lawyers assist clients with guided self-representation in family law, civil litigation and criminal law matters. …