On any given Tuesday or Friday, a small room on the second floor of a downtown Winnipeg shopping mall buzzes with activity by law students, social work students and practising lawyers. Community members holding demand letters, court documents, landlord letters and immigration notices are lined up down the hall. At 1 pm sharp, the accordion doors are opened by the law student/receptionist. The twice-weekly drop-in clinic run by Legal Help Centre (“LHC”) is open for business.
For the next busy 3 1/2 hours, the receptionist assigns files to individual students, who then meet with their “client” in a private interview room. Following each client interview, the student debriefs the interview with one of the practising lawyers/volunteers standing by in the back room.
By the end of the afternoon, up to 30 clients will have been seen. In the process, the students will have increased their skills and knowledge in interviewing and dealing with clients, and learning about ethics and responsibility in the legal profession. Since its inception in 2011, TDS lawyers have been a part of the team of lawyer volunteers who guide, assist and mentor the law students at LHC drop-in clinics.
As an “access to justice” initiative, LHC plays a meaningful role in assisting lower income people to learn about their rights and to assist in determining next steps, either for the exercise of rights or to access needed social services. LHC does these things by providing referrals, legal help and public legal education and information.
Legal aid services are only available for a minority of legal matters and at that, to a minority of lower income people. Many other lower income people do not qualify for legal aid. For those that may have a family law matter, require advice about their rental arrangements with their landlord, or face a collection letter because of a debt past due, access to justice is not just a concept, it can be a tangible issue that plays out in basic matters relating to daily needs or personal security.
Through the dedication of its staff, students, and the larger Winnipeg legal community, LHC has become a successful initiative well-known and well-used by lower income people. As one of LHC’s funders, and because of the many TDS lawyers who are delighted to serve in a governance capacity and as lawyer supervisors, TDS has been proud to be a part of the work of Legal Help Centre.