UBC law students who have been helping Indigenous residents of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside for a quarter-century aren't letting a pandemic lockdown strand their clients.
Students from the Peter A. Allard School of Law have been staffing the Indigenous Community Legal Clinic since its founding in 1994.
The storefront clinic, at 148 Alexander Street, offers free legal services and advice to Indigenous clients in the areas of family, criminal, civil, and labour law, as well as in aboriginal legal issues. In return, the students receive a valuable practical addition to their legal education.
Under the supervision of three certified lawyers, the students obtain hands-on experience, appearing in court, conducting interviews, and managing caseloads. The clinic offers important knowledge for students imterested in moving into advocacy or social-justice work.
As explaind in a UBC release, when the coronavirus pandemic caused widespread workplace closures in March, clinic staff had about 150 open case files. Even though the courts were focusing only on urgent cases, the students decided that their clients deserved continuing service, especially considerimg that their social circumstances and neighbourhood probably meant that most of them were already inordinately affected by the pandemic.
Examples of services being provided are probating parents' wills, tracking adoption records, and helping with a federal class-action lawsuit related to Indian Day Schools.
As second-year law student Trudy Smith explained in the release: "The legal issues our clients are facing don’t go away just because there’s this new problem of a pandemic on the horizon. A lot of these processes will resolve more quickly than they would have if we had closed completely, which is important because they have significant consequences in our clients’ lives.”
When face-to-face service proved impossible, students arranged to contact clients by phone, email, and Zoom after scanning all the files to a secure platform.
Another second-year student, Kiera Stel, said their studies had prepared them well in coming to their decision to continue the semester and the clinic's services.
“We received a significant amount of training at the beginning of the semester about how to work with clients who have experienced trauma of all types, as this is the common experience of those we serve at the clinic,” Stel noted. “Cutting off our working relationships with clients would have gone against all the trauma-informed legal practice techniques that we learned about.”
The clinic's academic director, Patricia Barkaskas, praised the students' commitment: “It is really the students who have made this clinic what it is. It’s their late nights, their anxious tears. It’s all their hard work for the clients that is changing the way Indigenous peoples are being represented in law and legal contexts, with every file that we open.”