More than half a century ago, a group of students from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law received funding for a summer project that would ultimately lay the groundwork for a free community legal clinic in Toronto.
Today, the Downtown Legal Services clinic offers free legal assistance to students and low-income members of the community in areas of law that include housing, family, employment, criminal, refugee and immigration.
Supervised by five staff lawyers and the clinic’s director, 100 student caseworkers and volunteers serve nearly 2,000 clients each year.
“That original spirit of improving access to justice carries on with the students who step into the clinic today,” says Prasanna Balasundaramdirector of the community legal clinic and clinical legal education program at the Faculty of Law.
Balasundaram, who was among the lawyers representing refugees who helped strike down the Safe Third Country Agreement in a federal court in 2020, moderated and anniversary panel discussion this week with student caseworkers Nina Patti and former client Rossana Ibarra. The panel explored how law students at the clinic “develop insights into the social reality of law and legal institutions while making a tremendous impact on the lives of clients,” Balasundaram says.
Patti, a second-year law student, says being a caseworker in the clinic’s employment law division has been a highlight of her law school experience, giving her valuable, hands-on experience. That includes negotiating a settlement at a Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario mediation, as well as representing a client before the Ontario Labor Relations Board.
“Without DLS, most of my clients would not have been otherwise able to access legal help, and I am proud to be part of an organization that provides such a needed service,” she says.
“A great University should concern itself with its neighbors,”wrote Charles F Scott Jr.