How new federal legislation could hurt law students — and the people who rely on their services

December 5, 2018
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Information from TVOntario: It's a Wednesday morning, and proceedings on the second floor of the London courthouse are in full swing. In the waiting area, Barbie Anton is holding a letter from Legal Aid  referring her case to Community Legal Services, a free legal clinic staffed by Western University law students and supervised by lawyers. She needs someone to represent her on a criminal mischief charge.

Anton meets the clinic's criteria: although her financial situation would make her eligible for Legal Aid, she doesn't qualify, because her charge will likely result in a fine rather than jail time. She hopes to become one of the more than 100 people a year CLS represents on minor criminal matters, such as shoplifting, simple assault, and mischief.

The clinic, housed at Western University, about a 10-minute drive from the downtown courthouse, is one of seven of its kind in Ontario. All are attached to universities and staffed by law-student volunteers who are supervised by practising lawyers. The clinic could be Anton's best shot at gaining legal representation -- but new federal legislation has thrown the service's future into doubt.

Bill C-75, now in its third and final reading in the House of Commons, would, among other things, standardize the maximum penalty for summary conviction offences -- minor offences heard in provincial courts -- at two years less a day. Currently, law students are permitted to represent people charged with summary criminal offencesthat carry a maximum penalty of six months or less. Once the longer maximum penalty kicks in, they won't be permitted to deal with any.

Jody Wilson-Raybould, the federal minister of justice, explained in the Housethis month that "what Bill C-75 proposes is to provide more flexibility to prosecutors to proceed summarily in provincial court for less serious cases. This would allow for matters to proceed more quickly and for superior courts to focus on the most serious matters, resulting in an overall boost in efficiency in the system."

But David McKillop, the vice-president of policy and research for Legal Aid Ontario, told that the changes will prove devastating for clinics run by the province's law schools: "They can still do family services and the other things that they do, such as provincial offences. But in terms of actual criminal work, they will no longer be allowed to do that, which has serious access-to-justice implications and weakens our ability to serve our clients."


Read more: How new federal legislation could hurt law students — and the people who rely on their services