Victoria Shroff: Access to justice is for animals too

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      Access to Justice in B.C. and our four-legged friends just got a boost!  In October 2020, the Law Students Legal Advice Program (LSLAP) launched an innovative new animal-law pro bono clinic (ALPC) for low-income folks.

      LSLAP provides free legal advice and representation to clients in the Lower Mainland who cannot afford legal assistance. This new, student-run animal-law clinic is going to help animals and their humans access justice, and it is a first in Canada. The pro bono clinicians are law students, supervised by an LSLAP staff lawyer.

      LSLAP is part of the rich history of community legal services in B.C.  Established in the love-and-peace era circa 1969, LSLAP is grassroots, focused on poverty issues and social justice.  Today, it’s a nonprofit organization with more than 20 legal clinics serving low-income people.           

      I am a huge supporter of innovative access to justice solutions, and for years I'd been thinking of ways to incorporate experiential learning for my animal-law students. In 2019, two of our enthusiastic animal-law students approached me and my co-adjunct professor of animal law, Amber Prince, to help spearhead the ALPC. We were cheered on by Nikos Harris, QC, and guided by the LSLAP team over the past year regarding logistics pertaining to establishing this much-needed clinic. 

      Back when I was a student at UBC law school, I gained invaluable experiences as a student clinician at the Indigenous legal clinic in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Aside from affording me real-world opportunities and skills needed in practice, it opened my eyes to the need for access to justice for all, especially the vulnerable.

      Justice matters to all beings on a deep level. I've now been an animal-law lawyer for more than 20 years in Vancouver and I'm also a sometimes adjunct professor of animal law. So when my animal-law students requested my help in setting up this user-centred animal-law clinic, I saw it as a natural fit and was only too delighted to volunteer my services.

      Clinical students have full supervision by an LSLAP staff lawyer, and I have also agreed to stay on as an ad hoc volunteer consultant and to help run student training seminars. I’ve already assisted a student with the first-ever file received at the clinic following the ALPC’s launch. Prince and I are both helping, as are a few other lawyers in the community.

      To be clear, the pro bono animal-law clinic is an initiative of the LSLAP, and it is independent from UBC and from the Allard School of Law at UBC. Although Allard Law faculty and students may have assisted in developing, neither Allard Law nor UBC manages, oversees, or administers the animal-law clinic.

      Currently, there are six law students eager and willing to help pro bono clients within the clinical mandate. They can help with cases relating to pets in tenancies, "dangerous" dogs, off-leash dogs, etcetera. Students can draft documents and they can attend hearings and run trials that fall within their scope of practice.

      Though LSLAP students cannot handle every kind of animal-law file, low-income people can inquire about their cases. The in-person clinics are suspended for the year, but remote clinics will run until May 2021.

      Access to justice is fundamental to all Canadians and is being addressed at the provincial and federal level. In 2019, the B.C. legislature made a proclamation declaring Access to Justice Week to highlight the movement and new approaches to justice that are unfolding in our province. We have a dedicated group of stakeholders working on access to justice in B.C. I encourage you to look at the Access to Justice B.C. website.  The next Access to Justice Week in B.C. will be January 24 to 30, 2021.

      There's a special access-to-justice-for-animals event taking place at the Allard School of Law on October 29. Hosted by Prof. Wood  of the Centre for Law and Environment at the Allard School of Law, I'll be speaking about animals accessing justice, as will Camille Labchuk. At the webinar, I will talk about the new clinic as one of the pathways by which animals can get access to justice. If you're curious about animal law and issues facing the furry and finned, registration is free.

      I'm very pleased to be part of LSLAP’s new ALPC justice initiative, which serves people who could not otherwise access legal services for their animals. In 2019 and 2020, I was fortunate to be part of a team of lawyers who took on a pro bono case for a woman, Susan Santics, trying to save the life of her dog, Punky Santics. Ms. Santics faced multiple difficulties. We took her high-profile case all the way up to B.C.'s highest court and even filed for leave to Canada's top court, the Supreme Court of Canada.  The Santics case demonstrated the challenges people and animals face in animal-law cases.

      Access to justice is for everyone. Justice needs to be adaptive, collaborative, and accessible in order to work. The LSLAP animal clinic will provide access to justice for low-income folks and their animals while providing an opportunity for students to gain real-world experience.

      Having the new ALPC is a win-win for justice for both animals and people.

      V. Victoria Shroff is credited as one of the first and longest serving animal-law lawyers in Canada. She has been practising animal law for more than 20 years in downtown Vancouver at Shroff and Associates. She's also an adjunct professor of animal law at UBC's Allard School of Law (erstwhile) and teaches animal law at Capilano University.