Pandemic forces Calgary legal clinic to change – for the better

Alison Abel of the University of Calgary in Canada reports on a similar response to Covid 19 by a university legal clinic going online to that reported from the UK by Exeter University’s Tia Matt.

When Alberta’s courts closed in the third week of March to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the important work of Student Legal Assistance (SLA) came to a standstill. Physical distancing meant that student caseworkers were unable to meet with their clients, and paper files made working on files remotely nearly impossible.

“When the University of Calgary shut down campus it meant the law student caseworkers were no longer able to access client files, which were all on paper,” says Susan Billington, … associate professor and executive director of SLA. “Essentially, all of our work providing access to justice to some of Calgary’s most vulnerable citizens was suspended.”

A non-profit organization staffed primarily by University of Calgary law students, SLA provides free legal information and representation to low-income residents of Calgary and the surrounding area. About 100 student caseworkers work on a variety of files such as impaired driving offences, theft and trespassing, small claims, child support and guardianship, bylaw or traffic offences, and landlord/tenant matters.

After years working solely on paper, clinic makes transition to online files

In June, SLA earned “critical research status.” This enabled SLA staff members to return to the SLA office in Murray Fraser Hall who then worked tirelessly to transition all paper files to an online legal software platform, and to begin serving existing clients again. Student caseworkers have continued to work remotely, but have been able to visit the SLA office in file teams to access hard-copy files, prepare trial books, and liaise with administrative staff on client matter

“We have daily morning meetings on Zoom, client file team meetings on Teams, and our upper-year students hold daily online sessions to provide guidance and mentorship to our first-year caseworkers,” explains Louanne Moriarty, a third-year student and the clinic’s student director. “We have also been able to connect with our advising lawyers over Zoom, and the screen-sharing option has provided a new way to review critical documents.”

New remote intake process allows clinic to increase access to justice

In addition to setting up the online document platform, the clinic has begun piloting their new remote client intake process and working to find ways to continue to serve low-income Calgarians who may not have access to a computer.

“SLA’s outreach co-ordinators are developing protocols with our community partners, such as Alpha House and CUPS, to provide client intakes using computers at their facilities,” explains Billington.

When the Criminal Division of the Provincial Courts started the staged re-opening on July 6, the summer caseworkers hit the ground running, making more than 80 court appearances (mostly remote) in the first three weeks of July.  As the courts re-open, student caseworkers have also begun to re-attend at the Calgary Courts Centre to represent their clients and have already made several in-person applications in family law cases, and one student recently ran an in-person impaired driving trial.

With law students returning to mostly online class delivery this fall, SLA is also working on plans to welcome our new first-year students to volunteer with SLA to continue to provide services to those in need.

According to Billington, the amazing progress made this summer to bring the clinic into modern times has been a team effort and would not have been possible without the dedication and support of Ian Holloway, dean of the law school, the SLA staff and articling student, the advising lawyers and in particular the law student caseworkers.

“Our students have come forward with a true commitment to access to justice. They truly have been remarkable this summer in these trying times, and they keep the SLA staff team and me motivated to put into place the new systems so that they can continue to do this important work.”

This article was first published by the University of Calgary and is reprinted with permission.

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