Funding refuels family law services for low-income Londoners

Paul Mayne // Western News

Western Law alumna Jennifer Foster has returned to campus to run the family law portion of Community Legal Services, which will be helping low-income Londoners with family legal issues such as custody, access and child or spousal support.

Western Law students can now put their legal skills to the test for Londoners facing issues such as custody, access and child or spousal support.

Western’s Community Legal Services (CLS) recently received $303,000 in funding from Legal Aid Ontario to reestablish its family law practice, which provides representation for low-income London area clients. The funds, part of $6 million in Legal Aid grants provided to six university-operated legal clinics, will also be used to train students in family law.

“With 60-70 per cent of parties in London’s Family Court being self-represented, we have hoped for many years to add family law to our clinic,” said Faculty of Law lecturer Doug Ferguson, who serves as CLS director. “This grant will allow us to help low-income persons, speed up the court process and train students how to be good lawyers.”

For years, CLS has focused on areas such as criminal law, provincial offences, landlord/tenant issues and small claims court. Now, after an absence of almost two decades, family law is back in the mix.

“I had always said that some day I was going to come back and bring family law with me. But I didn’t think it would happen this soon,” said Jennifer Foster, a Western Law alumna, who has been named to head up family law at CLS.

Foster, who arrives at Western after working at Lerners law firm, hopes her passion for family law will rub off on the 18 students who are currently part of the program. That group is already tackling the 30 or so cases which came in during the first month.

“It’s the reason I went to law school – to help people who cannot afford representation. I joke with my husband that I don’t want to have to charge people money, so I’ll do it for free, if I’m able to, because I just want to help people,” Foster said. “I know it sounds really trite, but I legitimately do.”

Family law covers a host of areas, including divorce and separation, child custody, spousal and child support, division of property, child protection and adoption.

London’s unified Family Court system – the Ontario Court of Justice (provincial judges) and Superior Court (federal judges) – acts as one unit. Students are not allowed to represent clients in front of federal judges, unless the judge makes a special exception.

Nevertheless, there is plenty to learn outside the courtroom as well.

“The students can still provide services, as not everything is in court,” she said. “Even the files we have currently, I would say 75 per cent aren’t in court yet. So, the objective is to try and negotiate a settlement.

“Part of the learning experience is teaching the students to be settlement oriented because the courts are so clogged, with 275-300 trials currently on the list for Family Court in London.”

Third-year Law student Hilary Jenkins, a student supervisor, said family lawyers are in a special position to help.

“There are a large number of under-represented litigants in the Family Court system and, hopefully, our team can help fill the void,” Jenkins said. “I will begin my career with practical experience in managing real files and working with real clients.

“Family law has allowed more students the opportunity to gain practical experience. They are learning important skills in legal drafting, how to navigate through the judicial system and how to manage client expectations. The students have the opportunity to see first hand the challenges self-represented litigants face, which highlights to them the importance of access to justice.”

Foster said Western’s family law service falls under Legal Aid Ontario guidelines for financial eligibility, which has a maximum income level, depending on how many dependents a client has. An individual with an income lower than $19,080, or a family of five with an income lower than $45,580, would qualify for the new service at the university.

Western’s University Students’ Council provides funding to the program to assist all undergraduate and graduate students, except MBA students, due to their particular fee structure.

While the new service is less than two months old, early feedback from the legal community, as well as from participating Law students, has been positive, Foster said.

“A couple (students) have said that even if they end up not being interested in family law, it’s the client-management side, it’s the legal writing, it’s dealing with people on the other side, some who have lawyers and some who don’t,” she said. “It’s learning to negotiate using the right approach, managing people through what, for most, is the most difficult time in their life.”