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The Distance between Law and Justice

Lessons from a Student at Parkdale Community Legal Services


Amidst the student selection process for clinical and intensive programs at Osgoode last week, many of you have asked me about the Poverty Law Intensive at Parkdale Community Legal Services (PCLS). Being at Parkdale has been the best part of my law school experience. I started by completing a semester in the winter term, stayed on during the summer—as part of the first set of unionized summer employees!—and now, in my final semester, I am back at the clinic for the Directed Reading program. If you’re thinking about intensives, I highly recommend that you consider the Poverty Law Intensive.


Most law school classes are focused on learning legal principles and then applying those principles to a given set of facts. From this, one is expected to arrive at a legal answer. Of course, fact situations are rarely straightforward, and there is usually room for nuance and debate, but the common pedagogy is nonetheless based on black letter law. Presumably, this type of learning will prepare us for the profession ahead.


Except that in learning this way, we miss considering whether the laws we study are just and to what extent they have a disparate impact on certain people, such as the elderly, new immigrants, or the working poor.


Within my first few days at Parkdale I quickly realized that the clinic’s approach to learning about law was radically different. Rather than reading about legal principles in a textbook, I was learning immigration and refugee law through reading my client files. As it became clear, one of the best parts of PCLS is that each student is directly responsible for their own client files. Not only are you the main point of contact with the client, but you also strategize and propose next steps, put those steps into action, and meet with the client to move the file forward. Learning the law is just one part of the wider work.


If this sounds intimidating—and it did to me—not to worry, because throughout the process you are supervised by a staff lawyer. They review your work and provide feedback and offer advice, including: how to explain a situation to a client, how to write more convincing submissions by marshalling the facts, and how to sharpen your argument. Receiving daily guidance from experienced staff lawyers is an amazing way to learn legal skills.


As a student in the immigration division, I had the opportunity to work on a wide range of legal issues. For instance, I worked on an appeal for a refused family sponsorship application, and on humanitarian and compassionate submissions for a variety of issues, including a live-in caregiver applying for permanent residence. I also drafted part of a factum for a Leave Application for Judicial Review at the Federal Court on behalf of a convention refugee whose husband had been refused permanent residence based on a finding that the marriage was not genuine. The work is extremely compelling and often involves cases that decide whether someone can remain in Canada, or reunite with their family. I never had to wonder whether I was on the right side of justice.


In addition to client files, one of the most challenging and illuminating parts of the work is intake. The clinic is open for walk-in intake interviews four days a week where community members with a legal issue can meet with a student. There are a lot of reasons why intakes are challenging: it can be difficult to understand all the facts of a client’s story and to untangle relevant facts from a host of other issues; it can be hard to discern whether there is a legal issue involved at all; and, it can be a challenge to determine whether a legal remedy is available.


Despite these common challenges, the most difficult intakes occurred when I realised there was in fact no legal solution to the serious problem the individual in front of me faced. This is why intakes are so illuminating: it is often legislative rules—the ones our profession has been entrusted to understand and interpret—that create and perpetuate injustice. At Parkdale you will quickly learn that laws, while seemingly objective, have a disproportionate impact on certain people and communities. I began to see immigration legislation, even seemingly innocuous requirements, as something to be changed and reformed, rather than simply memorized for an exam.


This brings me to community legal work. Each division at the clinic has a community legal worker, who students work with on law reform initiatives. After learning from clients about how and why immigration laws are unfair, the community legal work is an essential aspect of trying to advocate for change. During my time at Parkdale, we worked on a petition to speed up processing times for families of refugees. We also organized public legal education workshops, which involved explaining immigration processes to community members and partners.


Recently, I attended a conference on how technology is changing education. The closing speaker, Graham Brown-Martin, posed the simple, but not commonly asked, question: what is school for? (You can see a version of his talk at  https://vimeo.com/187212428) Obviously, for most law students, the answer is probably that we attend law school because we want to be lawyers. We also might assume that three years of school will adequately prepare us for the profession. Brown-Martin offers a different idea: school should be about equipping students with the skills to solve the host of complicated problems present in the world today. Might law school be a place where students learn how to tackle some of these problems? Or, at the very least, a place where we can learn to confront problems with the existing legal system? A term at Parkdale showed me that law school can be such a place.


If this sounds interesting to you, I highly encourage you to consider the Poverty Law Intensive. At Parkdale you will get to work directly with clients, have the chance to understand the profound—and disparate—impact the law can have on low income communities, and then try to change it.