Western Law students can now put their legal skills to the test for individuals facing issues such as custody, access and child or spousal support.
Western’s Community Legal Services (CLS) recently received $303,000 in funding from Legal Aid Ontario to re-establish its family law practice, which provides representation for low-income clients. The funds, part of $6 million in Legal Aid grants provided to six university-operated legal clinics, will also be used to train students in family law.
“Family law is one of the greatest areas of need when it comes to accessing justice,” says John McCamus, Chair of Legal Aid Ontario. “We believe that law students can help to bridge the growing gaps in legal services – and we are pleased to support these student-run legal clinics to ensure that this happens.”
According to CLS Director and Faculty of Law Lecturer Doug Ferguson, it has long been a goal of Western’s CLS to add family law to the clinic due to the 60 to 70 per cent of self-represented parties in London’s Family Court.
“This grant will allow us to help low-income persons, speed up the court process and train students how to be good lawyers,” he says.
For years, CLS has focused on areas such as criminal law, provincial offences, landlord/tenant issues and small claims court. Now, after an absence of almost two decades, family law is back in the mix.
Jennifer Foster, JD’12, has been named to head up family law at CLS. Foster, who arrives at Western after working at Lerners LLP law firm, hopes her passion for family law will rub off on the 18 students who are currently part of the program.
“It’s the reason I went to law school – to help people who cannot afford representation. I joke with my husband that I don’t want to have to charge people money, so I’ll do it for free, if I’m able to, because I just want to help people,” Foster says. “I know it sounds really trite, but I legitimately do.”
Family law covers a host of areas including divorce and separation, child custody, spousal and child support, division of property, child protection and adoption.
Third-year law student Hilary Jenkins, a student supervisor, says family lawyers are in a special position to help.
“There are a large number of under-represented litigants in the Family Court system and, hopefully, our team can help fill the void,” Jenkins says. “I will begin my career with practical experience in managing real files and working with real clients.
“Family law has allowed more students the opportunity to gain practical experience. They are learning important skills in legal drafting, how to navigate through the judicial system and how to manage client expectations. The students have the opportunity to see first hand the challenges self-represented litigants face, which highlights to them the importance of access to justice.”
Foster says Western’s family law service falls under Legal Aid Ontario guidelines for financial eligibility, which has a maximum income level depending on how many dependents a client has.
An individual with an income lower than $19,080, or a family of five with an income lower than $45,580, would qualify for the new service at the University.
While the new service is only a few months in, early feedback from the legal community, as well as from participating law students, has been positive, Foster says.
“A couple of students have said that even if they end up not being interested in family law, it’s the client-management side, it’s the legal writing, it’s dealing with people on the other side, some who have lawyers and some who don’t,” she says. “It’s learning to negotiate using the right approach, managing people through what, for most, is the most difficult time in their life.”
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