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New Legal Clinic aims to improve access to justice through experiential education

The fall of 2022 will be historic for UNB Law and the Province of New Brunswick. In late September, the law school will welcome the very first clients to the UNB Legal Clinic—the province’s first full-time poverty law clinic offering legal representation to operate in over 30 years. The clinic provides free legal services to individuals who cannot afford a lawyer and who do not qualify for legal aid. Students, under the direct supervision of a full-time staff lawyer, will work on client files relating to housing and tenant matters, social benefits, employment law, and small claims. Students will also represent clients before administrative tribunals such as the Residential Tenancies Board, the Labour and Employment Board and Social Assistance Appeals Board.

“The opening of the Clinic is a tremendous accomplishment for our law school,” said Dean Marin. “It has been a long time coming; we are really looking forward to offering support to community members in need of these critical legal services.”

The Legal Clinic is a cornerstone of UNB Law’s Strategic Plan and the first step in achieving its ambitious goal of offering Canada’s most innovative experiential learning program. For Dean Marin, the Clinic aligns with the faculty’s commitment to offering a transformative legal education for the future.

“We are supplementing our historically liberal approach to legal education with experiential programming that helps students apply what they learn in the classroom to real-life problems. We are known for our ‘career-ready’ curriculum; it makes sense for us to embrace experiential learning as a natural extension of our program.”

Meet the Supervising Lawyer

The clinic will be led by Supervising Lawyer Jeannette Savoie, who brings nearly 20 years of practice experience to the position, including ten years with the Legal Aid Commission of the Northwest Territories. Ms. Savoie believes strongly in promoting access to justice through actions rather than words. During her time in the north, she established and operated the Outreach Legal Aid Clinic, which provides free legal representation to low-income people in matters relating to housing, disability and pension-related matters, employment issues, mental health and guardianship reviews, child protection matters, and debtor, creditor or civil claims.

In addition to this work, Ms. Savoie partnered with Indigenous communities and the NWT Legal Aid Commission to conduct fly-in poverty law clinics and other mobile legal clinics for isolated communities. Her advocacy work has made a significant impact on these communities, expanding legal services and access to justice throughout the Northwest Territories. 

A native of New Brunswick, Ms. Savoie earned a law degree from the Université de Moncton and an LLM in family law from Osgoode Hall Law School. She has appeared before all levels of court in the New Brunswick and the Northwest Territories. In 2016, Ms. Savoie was named a National Legal Aid Leader by the Canadian Bar Association, recognized for her dedication to access to justice and her efforts to expand the range of legal services available to low-income, marginalized or geographically isolated populations.

A truly experiential learning opportunity

The Legal Clinic is structured as a 6-credit course open to third-year students. It runs from September to April and then from May to August. Initially, the program will accept ten students for the 2022-23 academic year, with two students working at the clinic during the summer thanks to the generous MacBeath Fellowship. Fall clinical placements begin with an intensive orientation, including training in the areas of professional responsibility, practice management, client communication, cultural competence, and trauma-informed lawyering. In late September, the students will begin taking clients. They will work on files under the direct supervision of Ms. Savoie, per the Law Society requirements relating to student competency to practice law.

The Clinic will be housed in the Fredericton Downtown Community Health Center (FDCHC), which operates as a unique  partnership between the University of New Brunswick and Horizon Health Network.

“Housing the new UNB Law Clinic at the FDCHC aligns well with our mandate,” said Dr. Kelly Scott-Storey, Director of Community Research Scholarship and Teaching. “It will be such an incredible service to many vulnerable and marginalized groups of people, as well as a rich experiential education opportunity for students. It highlights once again the commitment of UNB to our community while concurrently providing exceptional education opportunities.”

Clinic hours will be Monday to Thursday, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Students will dedicate between 9 and 12 hours per week to their work at the clinic, covering at least one client intake shift. The students will meet with clients both during the workday and in the evenings to ensure the clinic remains accessible to the community.

“It is excellent training for law students,” said Ms. Savoie. “The experience in a legal clinic will make better lawyers. They will have practiced, they will have seen what an affidavit looks like—they will have prepared one—they will have interviewed clients, and they may have stood up in front of a court and pleaded the case. It will also make them better articling students. When they're handed their first file by the associate, they won’t be terrified. They will know where to start because they will have seen files and will know the process.”

The Clinic also includes a weekly three-hour in-class session on Friday mornings. This time is dedicated to discussion and reflection and for guest speakers, who will also present on a variety of topics during these sessions.

“When you see someone has worked in a legal aid clinic it speaks to the values of that candidate,” said Pierre Castonguay, Executive Director of The New Brunswick Legal Aid Services. “It shows that they care about theircommunity, that they have empathy for individuals and want to make a difference. More than ever, employers are looking at the type of employee they're hiring as opposed to how strong academically the candidate is.”

Improving access to justice

The Clinic aims to improve access to justice in the province by filling the gaps in New Brunswick’s legal aid system. A means test similar to that of Legal Aid will determine eligibility. Services are targeted to individuals on income assistance, with no income, or who are making minimum wage, and who do not qualify for legal aid.

“Right now, in New Brunswick, there are no legal services for people who cannot afford a lawyer in matters that are not covered by legal aid,” said Savoie. “There's no representation. That is the key benefit our full-time clinic will bring to the table. That's why this is so important, not just for UNB or just for this community, but for the province. I hope to instill in these students that this is important work—probably the most important work they will do in their entire careers because it makes a real difference.”

For Castonguay, the legal clinic will be a tremendous step forward for access to justice in the province.

“We worked closely with the law school to determine what services needed to be offered to improve access to justice for the community. It was clear that landlord and tenants’ rights was an area of law that the commission does not cover, yet there's a high demand for—especially with what we're seeing now with evictions and forced evictions. We have also seen a high-demand for pandemic-related employment issues such as CERB repayment. Independent legal advice offered by the clinic will be extremely valuable in these areas.”

A fellowship supporting the Clinic

UNB Law owes a debt of gratitude to the friends and family of the late Donald A. MacBeath, QC, a distinguished lawyer from Marystown, NL, known for his unwavering commitment to access to justice and remarkable service to his community. This group generously established the MacBeath Fellowship, an award valued at up to $5000 that supports students through their summer placements with the Clinic. MacBeath Fellow Sean Murphy (3L) has been hard at work since the end of term, collaborating with Savoie to research best practices, drafting policies and procedures, and creating a manual for the incoming students.

Future summer placements will ensure the continuity of the Clinic beyond the end of term. MacBeath Fellows will carry client files from May to the end of August, handing them over to the next set of clinicians at the start of the fall term.

Recognizing those who made this possible

Bringing the dream of a fulltime, in-house legal clinic to fruition has been a long and challenging journey. The Clinic has come together thanks to the support and hard work of several key stakeholders beginning with the many people who, over the years, pushed for a legal clinic at UNB Law. Thank you to those who helped with the recruitment and hiring process: Professors Janet Austin, Aloke Chatterjee and Ben Perryman, and Pierre Castonguay, Executive Director of The New Brunswick Legal Aid Services Commission. As Chair of the Legal Clinic Committee, Prof. Austin deserves special thanks for doing much of the research and preparatory work for this program.

Finally, a special thank you to UNB President Paul Mazerolle and Acting Vice President Academic Kathy Wilson, both of whom ensured the Clinic is fully supported by the University.

If you would like to get involved with the clinic, as a volunteer, a guest speaker, as an advisory board member or by making a donation, please contact lawdean@unb.ca or call 506.453.4627.

 

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