Sarah Buhler
Sarah Buhler

Legal ease

It is a basic tenet of Canadian society that all citizens are equal before the law, but this view may be a bit naïve, explained Sarah Buhler, an assistant professor in the College of Law.

"First of all, accessing a lawyer is actually quite a barrier for a lot of people, including middle-class people," Buhler explained.

A familiar hurdle is money. According to a survey by Canadian Lawyer magazine, professional legal fees range from $230 to more than $400 per hour, depending on the expe­rience of the lawyer involved. While this may be comparable to fees in other professions, it poses a problem, Buhler explained, particularly to those most marginalized in society.

"Many, many people cannot afford lawyers," she said, a situation made worse by an individual's circumstances. This includes discrimination by race or disability, low income, or cultural factors such as the legacy of colonialism and resi­dential schools among Indige­nous people.

"We find that in fact, law operates differently on people who are more marginalized," Buhler said. "So they're more subject to legal regulation, policing, criminalization and interactions with the state."

Buhler's interest in social justice led her to become involved in CLASSIC—Community Legal Assistance Services for Saskatoon Inner City. Launched by U of S law students in 2007, CLASSIC specializes in areas collectively known as poverty law or social justice law. Although she has been involved since the beginning, including acting as the clinic's first executive director and supervising lawyer, Buhler emphasized her role is now more modest.

"I'm one small piece of it and my part is to support the academic component," Buhler said, while acknowledging she still spends a significant part of her time there working with students and on her own research.

Located on 20th Street in Saskatoon, CLASSIC is an inde­pendent not-for-profit entity with an executive director, three full-time lawyers, students and support staff. While it has close links with the College of Law, none of its staff are paid by the university. Its services are reserved for people with low income, and there is a particular emphasis on the needs of Indige­nous clients.

Today, Buhler explained, CLASSIC is a fixture in the community as well as a valuable training ground for students from the College of Law. The law clinic offers help in a wide range of legal areas including housing, human rights, immigration and refugee issues, and even criminal and prison law. Buhler leads the Intensive Clinical Program, which places students full-time at CLASSIC for a semester for a full-term credit.

"Law students are actually doing most of the front line client service and legal work at CLASSIC," she said.

Buhler's interest in social justice has deep roots. She grew up in Thailand, where her parents worked in the area of international development. She moved back to Canada to pursue her post-secondary education and law career. She joined the College of Law faculty in 2010.

"There's significant dialogue among lawyers and govern­ment on the issues of access to justice and the role of lawyers in creating a more accessible and responsive legal system," she said, explaining that she strives to design her research to create knowledge to advance this cause.

For example, one project involves a series of interviews with clients of CLASSIC and people from other community organizations. Participants were asked about their experiences with the justice system, and what they saw as deficiencies.

"In particular, we're asking their priorities for law schools, law students and lawyers," Buhler said. "What skills do they need to have to work effectively with marginalized communi­ties?"

Research partnerships with groups such as STR8-UP, the Elizabeth Fry Society and others are also actively sought out. These partnerships offer advantages for both sides. The academics benefit from being able to engage in research that is meaningful to communi­ties—for example, visitation and phone calls for inmates in prisons—while the community groups gain knowledge to support their advocacy work.

"Community organi­zations, they're so busy just surviving and just doing their amazing work that sometimes an extra piece, like adding research in, is a challenge," Buhler said. "That's somewhere where academics, researchers and scholars can contribute."

Connecting directly with these communities creates a richer experience for students as well, and makes them more aware of the bad experiences with and associated mistrust of the legal system by marginalized groups, particularly Indigenous people.

"We're looking in partic­ular how lawyers can be better educated and connected to those communities," she said.
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