UVic law students helping marginalized peoples through pro bono work

Culture

Pro Bono Student Canada UVic chapter helping alleviate barriers to justice

Scott Graham via Unsplash.

For many Canadians, the legal system is esoteric, convoluted, and inaccessible. Yet, according to the Department of Justice, almost half of adult Canadians will experience a serious legal problem over any given three year period.

During remarks at a 2019 conference, Chief Justice Richard Wagner suggested that pro bono work might help to alleviate this access-to-justice problem. Pro bono is derived from the Latin term pro bono publico, which can be translated as ‘for the public good.’ The term is typically reserved for legal professionals offering their services free of charge.

Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC) is an organization that provides such services. The PBSC pairs law students across the country with law firms and public interest groups to provide legal aid to low-income or marginalized peoples. According to their website, they have 22 chapters at law schools across Canada. 

The PBSC UVic chapter has released a list of projects which student volunteers are currently undertaking. The projects include improving access to justice, criminal, health, family, environmental, human rights, and Indigenous law. Some of the chapter’s partners include the BC First Nations Justice Council, the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association

Layne Clarke is a second-year law student at UVic pursuing a joint degree in Canadian Common Law and Indigenous Legal Orders. Clarke is one of the project co-leads for the PBSC’s Trans ID Clinic project, and spoke with the Martlet about their involvement with the PBSC.

Clarke said they volunteer to help trans and gender non-conforming people navigate the ID change process. PBSC is partnered with Trans Care BC and Island Sexual health (ISH) — all of the Trans ID clinics are hosted at the latter.

“Primarily what we’re trying to do is to break down some of the barriers that trans people encounter when changing their ID,” said Clarke. “So for example, the statutory declaration, we offer that for free, where otherwise people would have to go to a lawyer and pay a lawyer to do it, or go and pay a notary to do it, which can range in cost.”

Changing one’s name in B.C. can be a lengthy process, which includes a fingerprint check, acquiring supporting documents, and later paying to change every single piece of ID. Changing one’s gender designation can be a costly, bureaucratic procedure as well. 

The Trans ID Clinic is only one such pro bono project working to improve access to legal services. But despite the benefits of pro bono work, there is currently no requirement for lawyers to offer pro bono services in Canada. 

The Canadian Bar Association’s (CBA) Pro Bono Committee suggests that all members of the legal profession aim to contribute 50 hours, or three per cent of billings per year on a pro bono basis.

In the U.S. some states require lawyers to offer a certain number of pro bono hours per year. In 2012, New York became the first state to stipulate a 50-hour pro bono law as a condition for being called to bar, and is the only state to offer a pro bono licensing requirement. Law regulatory agencies in other U.S. jurisdictions are considering whether to follow suit. 

The Law Society of BC has adopted certain regulatory changes to encourage pro bono work in the province, including changing conflict-of-interest rules and providing indemnity coverage. 

Clarke doesn’t think mandating pro bono work is the right call. They said the volunteerism aspect of pro bono work ensures that the right people are being paired with the right projects. “It makes sure people who want to do it are doing it … I think we should encourage all law students to do it, and all lawyers as well.”

The rationale behind the student volunteer program is that it’s a win-win, instilling a charitable ethic among future lawyers while also providing a means of service to those on society’s margins. 

“As a nonbinary person myself, I like getting to help my community — it’s just very rewarding,” said Clarke.

 A full list of the UVic PBSC’s 2022 projects can be found here, and contact information here.