February 27, 2009
By Colleen MacPherson
Photo by Colleen MacPherson
Although just two years old, Community Legal Assistance Services for Saskatoon Inner City Inc. (CLASSIC) has a strong reputation in the inner city, proof that there continues to be a need to provide meaningful access to justice for low-income and historically disadvantaged citizens of Saskatchewan.
The free, not-for-profit clinic operating out of the White Buffalo Youth Lodge on 20th Street is where College of Law students, under the direction of supervising lawyers, get the chance to acquire practical experience in poverty law which encompasses residential tenancy matters, social assistance appeals, labour standards matters, small claims cases and other matters outside the purview of the Legal Aid Commission. But for one college professor and member of the CLASSIC board, the experience is double-barreled.
“What we want our students to do,” said Tim Quigley, “is to come out of college trained as lawyers but also situated as citizens too. It can’t do any harm for our students to have been exposed to the needs of the poor community.”
And Quigley speaks from personal experience. As a U of S law student in the early 1970s, he participated in a clinical program—one of only three in the country—which offered a complete range of free services but which, in 1988, ran out of funding. “There were constant cries from students to reinstate the program but we simply didn’t have the resources. Happily … the recent efforts of the students and the improving resources of the college coincided so that’s how we got back to it.” The college currently offers two clinical law courses focused on the theory of poverty law.
The development of the current CLASSIC program was very much a student-driven process, he said. “I was overwhelmed by how much leg work they’d already done before they began talking the idea up with faculty.” That work included securing financial support for CLASSIC from a number of organizations including the STC Urban First Nations Services Inc., the Law Foundation of Saskatchewan, the provincial Ministry of Justice and White Buffalo Youth Lodge which offers reduced rent.
Since it opened its doors in February 2007, CLASSIC has remained committed to providing legal services “in areas where nobody is acting outside the work of Legal Aid,” said Quigley. “These are usually administrative decisions by government tribunals or officials and it is largely an unmet need.” He added there is no legal impediment to students handling these matters because they are largely outside of the courts and the work of private lawyers.
CLASSIC offers two service programs. One is a walk-in advocacy clinic where clients meet with a second- or third-year student who, with a supervising lawyer, prepares an action plan and serves as the client’s advocate. There is also a legal advice clinic that allows clients the chance for a consultation with a volunteer lawyer. In both cases, clients must meet an income criterion.
One of the drawbacks to CLASSIC’s success is a caseload “that’s jumping by leaps and bounds,” said Quigley. “We’re even getting calls from outside the city.” When first established, CLASSIC was supported by a Law Foundation grant of $150,000 per year for three years but the financial requirements of the program now exceed $400,000 per year which includes salaries for two supervising lawyers and part-time receptionist and office manager.
Quigley said the program has received a grant from the Provost’s Committee for Integrated Planning for the current planning cycle but continues to seek other sources of funding. And even as that search goes on, plans are taking shape to expand the program’s offerings. A proposal is being prepared for a disability law project “and I could see setting up practicum programs in other areas of law like human rights, immigration matters or conceivably there could be a role in criminal law. The trick is to find a balance between stabilizing what we have and moving into new fields.”
The College of Law is also considering creating a clinical law faculty position, recognition of the role of the practicum in student education. “The practicum is not as entrenched in law schools as it is in teaching, nursing and medicine, but I think it’s becoming more so.”
Harkening back to his student years, Quigley said his clinical experience was formative. “Administrative law didn’t mean a lot to me as a student until I started using it down at the clinic. It had a big impact on me and I hope some of our students are attracted to doing poverty law in one way or another.”