Lawyers across Alberta spend countless hours each year volunteering with legal clinics and court programs to assist vulnerable individuals with their legal problems. Without help, these individuals would otherwise represent themselves - called self-represented litigants or SRLs. Volunteer lawyers play a critical role in ensuring fair access to our justice system.
Many vulnerable individuals faced with a legal issue either abandon the fight for their rights or self-represent as they are unable to afford professional services. The Canadian Bar Association's November 2013 report states that judges are concerned about SRLs as they are usually "unable to articulate their case" or "fail to address the issues that are probative." The judges also noted that unrepresented litigants "are often overwhelmed by their emotions" and tend not to explore all possible scenarios. About 67% of SRLs reported that it was challenging to navigate the court system, and 49% of SRLs felt that self-representation made the process slower. In contrast, 72% of litigants represented by lawyers reported much better experiences and outcomes.
There is no simple solution to bridging the access to justice gap. It is a big puzzle requiring a re-evaluation of our current legal system. In the interim, volunteer lawyers play a critical role in minimizing the impact of the gap on marginalized individuals. Lawyers can volunteer their time providing pro bono legal services through community and student legal clinics, at courthouse-based programs, or within their practices. The Law Society of Alberta, which regulates lawyers in the province, encourages its members to engage in pro bono opportunities. Moreover, many lawyers feel an obligation to use their skills to serve those that cannot afford their services.
Clinics and courthouse-based programs rely significantly on the generosity of volunteer lawyers to provide free legal services in the community. We interviewed staff and volunteer lawyers from these organizations to get the inside scoop on the role of volunteer lawyers and pro bono organizations in the community.
Calgary Legal Guidance (CLG)
CLG's staff and volunteers are always ready to assist Calgary residents who do not qualify for Legal Aid with their family, employment, small claims, immigration, and other matters. CLG facilitates evening and outreach clinics where volunteer lawyers provide 30-minute appointments of free legal advice. CLG also operates Dial-a-Law, a collection of recorded information on various legal topics. (This service was written and is updated by volunteer lawyers.) CLG believes that the law exists to empower individuals in finding a just outcome to their problems and not to create inequality in our communities.
Central Alberta Community Legal Clinic
Central Alberta Community Legal Clinic is headquartered in Red Deer and partners with other agencies in Ponoka, Medicine Hat, Fort McMurray, and Lloydminster to provide widespread legal support to smaller communities in Alberta. Volunteer lawyers give legal advice at evening clinics on matters related to family law, civil law, criminal law, wills, and other legal issues. Clients can chat with a lawyer for 30 minutes, following which they may receive further support from a paid staff lawyer.
Edmonton Community Legal Centre (ECLC)
ECLC addresses access to justice challenges in Edmonton by providing free legal information and advice to low and moderate-income people. ECLC assists with legal issues related to family, landlord and tenant, employment, human rights, debt, small claims, income support, and immigration matters...