After Law student Maeve Byrne met her first client, she realized just how important her job was.
Byrne’s client at Western’s Community Legal Services (CLS) was a man with mental illness who believed in a variety of conspiracy theories. So caught up in his mental anguish, he lost track of his basic responsibilities, such as paying rent.
He came to Byrne with an eviction notice and an inability to afford a lawyer.
“He was really nice and so sweet,” said Byrne, 25, now a supervisor at CLS, “but it was very challenging.”
Fortunately, through negotiations with the landlord and helping her client come up with a payment plan, she helped him avoid eviction.
Western Law students started CLS in 1970 to serve low-income community members like Byrne’s client. Funded in part by Legal Aid Ontario, Western and Fanshawe College, CLS also provides free legal advice and representation to all Western and Fanshawe students.
“This is about access to justice,” said Doug Ferguson, CLS director. “We cover clients who have fallen between the cracks of the system. Most of them don’t have the money to spend on a lawyer. So, we help them free of charge.”
Prior to coming to the clinic 10 years ago, Ferguson practiced in a private law firm for 20 years. In 2001, he lost his wife of nearly two decades to cancer.
“I ended up being a single dad to two kids,” Ferguson said. “I said to my partners, ‘I can’t be both a good dad and a good partner.’”
Directing the clinic gave Ferguson the flexibility to balance his work and fatherly duties. It also satisfied his desire to both teach students and help people with low incomes.
Ferguson, also an adjunct professor at Western, is one of two full-time lawyers at CLS.
There are also three part-time lawyers, about 200 students and a small support staff. The students serve as supervisors, caseworkers or associate caseworkers. Supervisors and caseworkers must be in at least their second year of law. They take on multiple clients as part of their required coursework. Associate caseworkers are first-year volunteers who assist caseworkers and conduct initial meetings with clients.
The CLS staff helps clients with legal issues such as landlord-tenant disagreements, small-claims cases and low-level criminal offenses, known as summary conviction matters, among others.
The Dispute Resolution Centre in London, in conjunction with CLS, is a mediation service that offers a speedier resolution to legal cases in which both sides want to come to an agreement. Byrne and other supervisors accept clients through both clinics.
The workload is quite staggering. Last year, the CLS staff worked on more than 900 files, provided brief legal advice to an additional 200 people, and notarized documents for more than 2,000 people.
About 75 per cent of people who have sought the services of CLS are from the London community at large, with the remaining 25 per cent being students.
Ferguson praises his students’ ability to take charge and says he’s rarely required to step in on a matter.
“Our students do everything,” he said. “They do the interviews with the clients, make all the court appearances and actually do the trials in front of a real judge.”
A third-party survey was conducted this past spring to gauge client satisfaction at CLS. More than 70 per cent of respondents rated the clinic 5-out-of-5.
“Despite their lack of experience, our students are held in high regard by our clients,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson, who graduated from Western’s law program in 1981, is a strong believer in hands-on learning in law schools. He’s a leader among those who would like to “change legal education in Canada.”
He said CLS primes law graduates with the real-life legal skills they need to enter seamlessly into the workforce after graduation.
“Most law students go through law school without ever having drafted a contract or having appeared in court,” he said. “Now to me, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Byrne, in the third year of her Law degree program, couldn’t agree more.
“It’ll just be that much easier the first time that I have to navigate my way through court,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to do it here first.”
Both Ferguson and Byrne say the clinic is a “win-win.” It not only provides hands-on learning for law students, but also makes a difference in their clients’ lives.
“A lot of these cases are small cases, but for the clients, they’re huge,” Ferguson said.
Eventually, he would like to expand the clinic to offer legal advice and representation to non-profit organizations as well as to clients dealing with family legal matters. “As usual, it all depends on funding,” he said.
The clinic has undergone a physical expansion to a larger and more open office space right outside where the clinic is currently located in the Josephine Spencer Niblett Law Building. This will provide a welcoming space for clients in need of legal counsel.
For Ferguson, it’ll provide some new perspective on the world.
“After 10 years, I finally get a window!” he said, with a smile.