Alberta Debtor Support Project Launched
With the twin impacts of COVID-19 and an ongoing recession pushing many Albertans to the financial precipice, many industry watchers are predicting a spike in consumer debt defaults and foreclosures in the coming months. Stakeholders across the legal community have worked together to expand legal services and increase the number of trained lawyers available to help.
The Alberta Debtor Support Project (ADSP) is a volunteer-led initiative comprised of lawyers and staff from the University of Calgary’s Public Interest Law Clinic, Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta, Calgary Legal Guidance and Pro Bono Law Alberta. Together, these organizations are working to provide legal information, summary advice clinics, debt negotiations services and help for court hearings entirely online and at no cost.
The ADSP is comprised of four key elements:
- Help with Debt Alberta – an online triage tool that directs Albertans who are struggling financially to key resources that can support them and help them work through their financial issues;
- Consumer Debt Negotiation Project – A new direct advice service, operated by the University of Calgary Public Interest Law Clinic, to help Albertans who are in default on their mortgages or one or two other debts and want to negotiate with their creditors;
- Summary advice clinics – Run by Calgary Legal Guidance, these clinics pair Albertans with pro pono volunteer lawyers to provide advice.
- Court-Based Services – ADSP provides links to Pro Bono Law Alberta to help Albertans get access to supports for civil matters at courthouses in Calgary and Edmonton.
For ADSP initiator Judith Hanebury, the idea to create a one-stop-shop for referrals to these and other services was sparked by a conversation with a person in need. Last April, Hanebury (who retired following a 14-year appointment to the Court of Queen’s Bench as a Master-in-Chambers) ended up in conversation with someone who was experiencing acute anxiety over the potential loss of their small business.
“When this person talked to me about their financial issues, I realized that there was no single place online that provided the kind of unbiased information and advice that they needed,” says Hanebury. “After working in the legal system and focusing my work on issues of debt, bankruptcy and foreclosure, I recognized that there would be an increasing need for easily accessible debt information.
As well, from years of watching people in foreclosure try to make deals with their lenders when in Court, it seemed to me it would also be useful to help people understand their options earlier in the process.”
Seeing two obvious gaps in the system that she felt could be filled, Hanebury reached out to her network of former colleagues to investigate some potential solutions. Very quickly, her network grew – until the ADSP was comprised of both active and retired lawyers and other professionals from across Alberta who had identified similar problems.
“When I started with this idea, I just started talking to people I knew, but now things have really snowballed,” remarks Hanebury. “For example, the Legal Education Society of Alberta stepped up and offered to host training materials on debt and foreclosure issues at no charge for volunteer lawyers. It’s astonishing to say, but I don’t think a single person has said no to this initiative.”
“Everyone recognized that these are new and difficult times that are going to be hard for many Albertans and wanted to help make a difference. Their hard work and dedication have made it happen.”
Building out an organization to support an unmet need can take years to develop, but ADSP has gone from an idea to a fully-realized operation in less than six months. With some law students still seeking articles, ADSP has partnered with the University of Calgary’s Public Interest Law Clinic to pair students with volunteer retired lawyers or judges who are interested in supporting this project as part of their composite articles while providing access to justice for many Albertans facing financial hardships during these unprecedented times.