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Toronto’s Community Legal Clinics: How Can Law Students Get Involved?

U of T students discuss their experiences in community legal clinics and where to find opportunities

Looking to get involved with a legal clinic this year? There are many opportunities for law students to engage in meaningful client-facing work and advocacy outside of Downtown Legal Services, U of T Law’s community legal clinic. Three upper-year students at U of T Law talk about how they got involved in Toronto’s community legal clinics and how you can too.

Matthew Tran (3L) has worked with the FCJ Refugee Centre (FCJ), Willowdale Community Legal Services (Willowdale) in North York, and Advocates for Injured Workers (AIW).

FCJ advises, counsels, supports, and advocates for refugees and others at risk due to their immigration status, addressing systemic issues that newly arrived refugee claimants face in Canada. FCJ is not funded by Legal Aid Ontario. Tran began working at FCJ during his first year at law school in September 2020 and is currently with FCJ in his second semester of 3L. Tran describes FCJ as a unique institution deeply rooted in the migrant community that provides all sorts of services to refugees and folks who are marginalized and exposed to risks because of their immigration status. Traditional “legal work,” such as immigration support work, is not the main focus of the organization. Instead, legal work is just one service the group provides to support the migrant community from further state violence,” explained Tran.

Tran’s role at FCJ has been as an executive member of The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) at U of T Law, alongside Martin Heslop (3L), Nikou Salamat (2L), and Cassandra Griffin (2L). The executive members and other student volunteers support the organization by helping with the drafting and review of individuals’ humanitarian and compassionate applications. To get involved with FCJ, you can reach out to CARL U of T at utoronto.carl@gmail.com.

Tran also works with Willowdale, a position he has held since beginning law school. Although the clinic provides services for a wide range of legal issues, most of Tran’s work at Willowdale has been in the support of the clinic’s lawyers in the areas of immigration law and social assistance. He has “assisted clients with their citizenship, permanent residency and family sponsorship applications, drafted legal research memos, and has led an appeal on the denial of Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) benefits at the Social Benefits Tribunal (SBT).” 

Tran’s work at Willowdale has taken him into the broader community; “as public places have begun opening up again, I and a fellow law student, Fatima Aamir (2L), have led public legal education workshops at shelter hotels in the Willowdale region as many immigrants and refugees reside in these hotels.” Students interested in participating in a fellowship with Willowdale are encouraged to reach out to Tran directly.

AIW represents clients in their claims and appeals with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal (WSIAT). Supervised by staff lawyers at the Industrial Accident Victims Group of Ontario, U of T Law students have the opportunity to gain experience with casework during the summer in paid positions, or during the school year in an externship for academic credit. Students who volunteer with the clinic can apply to work at AIW full-time during the summer.

Tran began working with AIW in March 2021. After over a year of assisting the clinic, Tran recounts that one of the most important aspects of the clinic is its “strong belief that worker-led organizing can lead to transformative and material change.” At AIW, Tran engaged in a mix of direct client work and legal research, letter drafting, and factum drafting. Near the end of his time at AIW, Tran co-drafted and reviewed an appellate factum for an appeal at the WSIAT “regarding unfair administrative practices and policies that disproportionately harm repatriated injured migrant workers.”

Many of the individuals Tran assisted while at AIW were migrant injured workers, many from Canada’s seasonal agricultural program, who were forced to repatriate back to their country following injury here in Canada. “They were not given permanent status upon arrival to stay and…could not afford to stay here in Canada without [adequate] support. Canada’s seasonal agricultural program forces many injured workers deeper into poverty and defers all healthcare and worker compensation responsibility onto the backs of people in the Global South.”  

Tran calls attention to the clinic’s support of “Injured Workers Action 4 Justice,” a grassroots organization of injured workers and their families supporting each other and fighting against injustice.

Interested students can get involved by applying through the Law School Summer Employment Program to work with AIW during the summer.

There are also legal clinics that focus on providing legal services to ethnic communities in Toronto. Mika Choi (3L) started working at the Korean Legal Clinic (KLC) in the first semester of her 2L year and has continued ever since.

In Choi’s words, “KLC’s mandate is to assist low-income Korean-Canadians residing in Ontario who face economic, linguistic, and cultural barriers to accessing legal services. The clinic aims to achieve this objective by referring inquiries to Korean lawyers in the Greater Toronto Area and holding public legal education seminars on various topics, such as housing, immigration, labour and employment, and tax law. The clinic also compiles resources for the greater Korean community; the clinic is currently compiling a legal terms glossary in Korean and English.”

When asked about the type of work students can expect from volunteering with KLC, Choi noted that some understanding of the Korean language is preferred; “students frequently conduct legal research and translate the clinic’s seminar materials from English to Korean.” The legal terms glossary project is currently led by a law student. Law students at KLC work in a variety of areas, including social media management. “Law students also conduct the initial intake process for potential clients, determining the inquirer’s needs and identifying potential next steps.”  

The clinic welcomes student involvement; students can either find a placement with the clinic through Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC) or by reaching out directly to admin@koreanlegalclinic.ca for further information.

There are other legal clinics in Toronto with a focus on specific communities, which interested law students can get involved with:

Looking for unique client-facing work in the field of environmental justice and health equity? Jane Fallis Cooper (3L) worked at the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) in 2021 during her 1L summer as a Lenczner Slaght Fellow. She is also working with CELA this semester through Osgoode Hall Law School’s Intensive Program in Indigenous Lands, Resources & Governments. CELA is Ontario’s only specialty environmental legal aid clinic, funded by Legal Aid Ontario.

When asked about the clinic’s work and mandate, Fallis Cooper noted that CELA operates in three spheres: legal/litigation services, public legal education, and policy advocacy. CELA’s staff include lawyers, researchers, and policy coordinators. The clinic is “specifically concerned with environmental justice and health equity work for low-income populations.” 

This year, CELA is one of the organizations participating in the Donner Fellowship Placements with Public Interest Organizations by Direct Application program. There is one placement available; students at the Faculty can apply through the Donner program to work at the environmental clinic this summer without creating a personalized work/project plan. Students have also worked with CELA in the past through the clinical legal education externship on environmental law at the law school. 

Legal Aid Ontario’s website contains a list of community legal clinics and specialty legal clinics like CELA. Interested students can search for a clinic that is the right fit for them.

Editor’s Note: This article does not intend to cover every community-based legal clinic in Toronto, but means to provide students with a starting point to search for client-facing opportunities.

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