Op-ed: We must preserve legal aid for students — and anybody who requires access to it

Provincial cuts, Student Choice Initiative threatens the functionality of the Downtown Legal Services Clinic

Op-ed: We must preserve legal aid for students — and anybody who requires access to it

The Downtown Legal Services Clinic (DLS) is one of the U of T Faculty of Law’s community legal clinics that offers students the opportunity to handle local cases under the close supervision of lawyers. Their range of free services includes help with academic offences and landlord disputes, while simultaneously serving as an educational program for Law students.

With regards to The Varsity’s ongoing coverage of the effects of the opt-out period on various aspects of student life, it has previously been reported that the DLS is facing hits ‘by triple blow’ from the anticipated budget cuts not only deeming their $3.29 fee non-essential, but followed the already-announced $133 million budget cut to Legal Aid Ontario and a 10 per cent cut in Law tuition fees.

It is clear that the DLS’ future is bleak under such circumstances, as is the case with many other student societies on campus. At the time of writing, it is unclear the extent to which the Student Choice Initiative (SCI) has affected student life on campus or how this can be measured.

However, to me, the SCI has helped reiterate the importance of some of the many services students have access to on campus, particularly with consideration to the work of the DLS over the past few years. This is one aspect of the SCI that has urged our close attention to various services and groups that we are considered to be a part of or have access to.

In this case, most people might question to what extent the services of the DLS are useful to a current student. I hope to defend the view that the services provided by the DLS are of high value to both the students who have access to it and those who are involved with their work. Legal aid is a necessity not only to us as students, but to anybody who requires access to it.

The work of the DLS and its funding allows the clinic to offer services at no cost to low-income residents of the city and students at U of T. Access to free legal aid helps a person understand their rights and navigate the law with confidence. The ability to do this is dependent on the DLS’s budget. As outlined on their website, their ability to take on clients who are eligible to receive their services is dependent on the caseload they currently have. Hence, cuts to the budget threaten the clinic’s ability to manage large caseloads during the year and serve the communities that need it most.

Further, the communities which the DLS serves are entitled to attend Public Legal Education (PLE) workshops, which help people better understand the law. As depicted on their website, “Knowledge of the law and legal rights is a critical first step in assisting people in exercising their rights.” Through their efforts to extend their outreach in different communities, it is clear that the DLS is a vital resource in helping people recognize their rights and privileges through the law. This can range from students navigating the academic appeals system to the rights of refugees.

It is vital that we advocate for an informed population who are not at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with the law.

Access to this information is not universal and may be difficult to understand for some without assistance and the necessary education. Unfortunately, PLE is not a common course you get the chance to take in high school, or the kind of information a quick Google search can provide. It is vital that we advocate for an informed population who are not at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with the law. The DLS is an institution that characterizes that in the best way through its work across various legal fields. The DLS fosters this notion in both those involved with the clinic’s efforts and those who depend on it.

Their range of free services includes help with academic offences and landlord disputes

With the impending threat of the SCI levied above student groups, it is awfully concerning to me that the fragility of student life is best exemplified by services such as the DLS being deemed non-essential.

Some may continue to defend the view that not every student at the university is in need of legal aid, hence the ancillary fee is not one that concerns the entire student population. This perspective remains close-minded to the ethics behind what the clinic can offer to those who need it and how necessary free services really are for those who cannot afford it.

I am personally eager to continue supporting the work of the DLS and invite you all to consider taking the time to learn more about each fee that has been made optional to you this year.

Neeharika Hemrajani is a second-year History and Ethics, Society and Law student at St. Michael’s College. Hemrajani is St. Michael’s College Director for the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

Editor’s Note (October 6, 6:19 pm): This article has been updated to correct that legal aid is not a right.

Downtown Legal Services hit by triple blow from Ford cuts

Student-run clinic faces uncertain future

Downtown Legal Services hit by triple blow from Ford cuts

“A difficult and uncertain time,” is how Acting Executive Director Karen Bellinger described the present and future of Downtown Legal Services (DLS). Recent announcements by the Ford government entailed that Legal Aid Ontario funding would be reduced, that Faculty of Law tuition would be decreased by 10 per cent, and that students now have the option to opt out of DLS’ incidental fee due to the Student Choice Initiative (SCI). All pose heavy consequences for the student-run legal aid clinic.

Five staff lawyers, about 120 law students, and volunteers addressed over 650 files last year at DLS, providing free legal services to U of T students and low-income individuals in the community in the areas of housing, criminal, employment, family, and refugee and immigration law. 

For students, DLS provides free legal services on issues ranging from academic offences to landlord disputes, maintains a free notary and affidavit service, and acts as a training ground for law students.

A wide array of students seek help at DLS, explained Bellinger, however, most commonly DLS handles cases of academic offence, housing disputes, and employment issues. A 2011 Globe and Mail report found that international students are disproportionately represented in academic offence cases at Ontario universities, usually due to a language or cultural barrier. Bellinger agrees that this is still the case when profiling the students DLS helps at U of T.

“A very grim outlook”

The first and second rounds of potential cuts came in January. With the announcement of the SCI, students can now opt out of the $3.29 incidental fee that makes up 30 per cent of the DLS budget. The Faculty of Law, which also supports the DLS, will take hits to its budget through a 10 per cent cut in domestic tuition and subsequent tuition freeze, announced at the same time.

A $133 million cut to Legal Aid Ontario, announced in April, muddied an already uncertain future for DLS, which now has a majority of its income sources either in jeopardy or already cut.

“We’re getting hit from all sides, really, unfortunately. And… it most likely means that we’re going to have to scale down divisions or work, at the very least, if not potentially lose some [divisions]. It’s a very grim outlook.”

What comes next?

Bellinger described an atmosphere of community and support at the DLS office in response to the precarity of its ongoing work, without any information on student levy funding until late September to early October — and a fiscal year that started in March. However, the organization is carrying on with bated breath.

The optimistic outcome for Bellinger is for students to recognize that “student groups are essential services.” However, she also acknowledged that economically vulnerable students need to save money where they can.

“No one thinks they’re going to need a lawyer. No one plans on that… We’re only needed when something goes badly,” said Bellinger.

“[The cuts] are going to mean that people who are the most vulnerable in our society and communities will not have anywhere to turn. The vast majority of our clients are people… who don’t have any other option.”