Oct. 25, 2021

Access to Justice Week: Student Legal Assistance caseworkers rally to provide virtual legal services during pandemic

Student Legal Assistance (SLA) is a pro-bono legal clinic that provides legal information and representation to low-income residents of Calgary and the surrounding area.
Student Legal Assistance

Since pivoting its operations online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic over a year ago, Student Legal Assistance (SLA) has maintained the momentum in providing pro bono legal services to marginalized groups in Calgary.

In 2020, SLA opened over 300 client files, and law student caseworkers dedicated an impressive 5,800 hours to clients who might otherwise have been unrepresented in our legal system. However, SLA’s successful digital transformation brought on by the pandemic has not always been an easy journey.

“The COVID pandemic has presented many challenges for SLA, and with the goodwill and hard work of many, SLA has transitioned operations to assist low-income clients with their legal needs in a digital remote working environment” says Susan Billington, LLB’85, Executive Director of SLA and Associate Professor at the University of Calgary Faculty of Law.

SLA caseworkers

In 2020, Student Legal Assistance used pandemic restrictions to implement online operations and digital services.

Pandemic an opportunity to improve operations

Despite these challenges, SLA law student caseworkers adapted to their virtual environment and adopted new ways of legal practice and delivering client services. According to Billington, “this included a shift to a digital platform for client file management, Zoom for meetings with clients and advising lawyers, not to mention learning new protocols for remote Court appearances in the criminal, family, traffic and civil divisions of the Provincial Court.”

As a non-profit organization, client matters are managed primarily by University of Calgary law students and the clinic’s articling student. During the academic year, over 100 student caseworkers assist clients on a variety of issues such as landlord/tenant matters, child support and guardianship applications, civil claims under $50,000, bylaw or traffic offences and certain criminal offences.

In addition to the law student caseworker program during the academic year, SLA hires 12 – 15 summer law student caseworkers to continue to service SLA’s clients during the summer months. This past summer, the SLA clinic welcomed seven first-year caseworkers and six upper-year caseworkers.

Work with clinic meaningful for students

Ryan Millar, who was a first-year summer caseworker with SLA, says that he was inspired to join the clinic because it provides vulnerable people a voice in the legal system. “Working with our clients is simply the most meaningful thing I have done in my life.”

In assisting SLA clients with their legal needs during the summer, caseworkers ran over 20 trials and conducted over 200 virtual client intakes. Connor Sprague, Student Director of SLA and a third-year University of Calgary law student, says that this success can be attributed to the dedication of the caseworkers and staff.

“The only explanation for the continued excellence in legal service delivery demonstrated by the 2021 SLA summer clinic team during the ongoing pandemic is found in understanding that each member invoked a deep passion for access to justice to persevere in giving selflessly to marginalized members of our community.”

Now that the academic term is once again in full swing, the summer caseworkers have stepped into the roles of Group Leaders and Mentors, ready to share their passion and experience with new law student volunteer caseworkers. While a long road still lies ahead, SLA’s volunteers serve as a reminder of the dedication and resiliency that is required to facilitate access to justice during these uncertain times.

Alberta Access to Justice Week

Access to justice can mean many things. It can mean getting the information necessary to know one’s legal rights and responsibilities. It can mean having meaningful access to the courts or another dispute resolution system when faced with a conflict. It can mean being able to retain a lawyer to represent one’s interests. It can mean having a say in the content of the laws that govern us. It can mean all this and more.