Students help break down barriers to justice

Second-year law student James Hutchinson is among several students offering free legal support through the Western chapter of Pro Bono Students Canada.

COVID-19 is making access to justice more difficult for marginalized communities, and that reality coupled with the move of many legal services online is prompting more Western law students than ever to step up to meet the need.

“There’s an increased awareness about the lack of access to justice in our marginalized communities, particularly during COVID, which has made it more challenging for people to access the services they need,” said second-year law student James Hutchinson, who with third-year student Sarah Hagarty is co-ordinating the Western chapter of Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC).

PBSC has been providing free legal support to people and communities facing barriers to justice since 1996.

This year, the Western chapter with more than 50 law student volunteers is running 23 projects providing free legal services to disadvantaged communities in the London area.

“The response from our students this year has been overwhelming,” said Kimberley Gagan, Western Law’s director of clinics & practical skills. “It’s heartwarming to see law students engage with community partners to bring access to justice for the most vulnerable members of our community.”

New projects include partnerships with the Nokee Kwe No-Fee Cannabis Pardon Clinics; the London Poverty Research Centre; Northwest London Resource Centre; Urban Haven, Community Living London, and the PHSS Community Project.

In partnership with the Northwest London Resource Centre, students will provide information relating to housing law and evictions in the context of COVID-19. They will also give guidance to new immigrants with regard to the criminal justice system.

“The opportunity to gain first-hand experience on issues surrounding access to justice is so critical for students at the early part of their career,” he said. “It gives them a chance to see the realities of the justice system, inspiring them to embody a pro bono ethic in their legal career.”

This hands-on approach is at work at the Cannabis Pardon Clinics, where students meet with clients and support them through the process of applying for a pardon. And through the N’Amerind Friendship Centre’s Gladue Writer Program, a student volunteer will help draft and write reports for Indigenous people facing court proceedings.

In addition to the 23 projects, PBSC students work with three community-based legal clinics in the region: Neighbourhood Legal Services (London & Middlesex), Huron Perth Community Legal Clinic and Elgin Oxford Legal Clinic.

“We are here to help individuals in our community facing barriers, and that help is needed now more than ever,” said Hutchinson.