Diversity Week

Osgoode And Specialty Legal Clinics: Challenges To Collaboration And Imagining Creative Partnerships

AJAY GAJARIA AND RAHIM JAMAL
Members of Osgoode’s SALSA (South Asian Law Students Association)

In the article, “Osgoode’s Less Than Strategic Plan”, printed in the Obiter Dicta two weeks ago, Nick Van Duyvenbode identified a lack of collaboration between Osgoode and organizations outside of the GTA. For him, there is a legal world outside Toronto waiting for Osgoode to extend a hand. We think that Nick’s right: there is considerable room for growth between our school and organizations outside the city. At the same time, this should not draw attention away from the fact that Osgoode also faces significant challenges building connections within Toronto, and in particular, with organizations that do not have the resources of a Parkdale, CLASP or Human Rights Legal Support Centre. We want to start a conversation that sheds light on the challenges we face in building effective partnerships between Osgoode, and small community organizations and legal clinics.

Osgoode has a large pool of competent and eager law students ready to get legal working skills outside of the law school. There is also a significant demand for legal expertise in the wider community. Osgoode has established institutional relationships with OPIR partners recently, but why doesn’t more collaboration happen? Are people in the school’s administration not reaching out to organizations or ignoring calls for assistance? Are law students lazy, insular and unwilling to get involved in the outside community?

As students part of Osgoode’s SALSA (South Asian Law Students Association) leadership, our experience attempting to build a connection with SALCO (South Asian Legal-Aid Clinic of Ontario) demonstrates that neither the administration nor students are to blame for a lack of effort of interest. Even when an organization needs help and law students ready and willing to give it, there are still significant barriers that need overcoming.

Over the past few years, SALSA and SALCO have attempted to build a partnership. We have a committed group of students willing to volunteer, and SALCO has an overwhelming demand for its services and is badly in need of resources (in particular people to do case work). SALCO has also expressed a strong interest in getting assistance from law students at Osgoode. And we do have a shared history: two Osgoode alumni who worked at Parkdale founded the clinic. It would seem like a natural fit. All we would need to do is collect a bunch of names of law students interested in helping out and forward them to the organization. The organization would tell us what to do and BAM! Effective community collaboration!

Unfortunately, this has not been the case. To date, SALSA has been unsuccessful in building a lasting and mutually beneficial partnership with SALCO. Why? There are a number of reasons. They include:

1. Most small organizations like SALCO don’t have the resources or time to train and supervise the work of law students. Unlike Parkdale or CLASP, SALCO is not a teaching clinic.

2. There is no office space, computers, or library space for students to use at the clinic.

3. Most of the work needed for day-to-day community clinic work is not in the form of writing a memo on a discrete area of law.

4. The demand is so high for services that there is not a huge need to have law students ‘advertise’ in the outside community on behalf of the clinic.

5. Students are temporary -- the time invested in teaching a student means time lost to the organization, particularly because students leave the organization once they’re fully trained.

These challenges are not unique to SALCO; they are common among small, effective specialty clinics and social justice organizations. So what can we do to build lasting partnerships with those that could use our help, but have scarce resources?

We are still in the collective brainstorming phase in answering this question. One potential way forward is to focus on research, community legal education, and law reform advocacy projects instead of particular case work files. In a meeting with Dean Sossin we have discussed utilizing Osgoode faculty who have experience and expertise in a given subject area to lend supervision support. This way a partnering organization or clinic can gain the benefit of law students without putting further strain on staff resources. This is only one suggestion. We are meeting with SALCO to find out more about what the organization needs and the role law students can play. If you’re interested in working with us on this initiative, we’d welcome your participation. Email us at: salsa.osgoode@gmail.com .

We should add that this project is not only for South Asian law students and the South Asian community. There are a number of collaborations that are waiting to be imagined and worked on. Osgoode is one of the most diverse law schools in Canada with a vibrant club system all able to cater to organizations like the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, Legal Centre for Spanish speaking people, and African Canadian Legal Clinic. Additionally, these challenges also occur in collaboration attempts with non-culturally specific organizations, such as HALCO (HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic of Ontario). We need to think of creative solutions and figure out how to use Osgoode’s resources to make effective collaboration happen.