Student-Led Legal Clinics Adapt to COVID-19 Challenges

January 27, 2021

When the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of most courthouses in Alberta, student volunteers and administrators from both Student Legal Services (SLS) in Edmonton and Student Legal Assistance (SLA) in Calgary had to rethink their approach to providing legal information and assistance to their clients. While serving low-income Albertans is the primary mission of these organizations, neither had encountered a situation where issues with access to justice were less about having funds and more about being physically unable to engage with the justice system.

With offices housed in the law schools of the University of Alberta and University of Calgary, respectively, SLS and SLA had to make several significant changes to adapt to the new “normal” as both locations were closed during the campus shutdown in the spring. Deciding how to move forward with their respective mandates in a time of social distancing and remote work created new challenges and opportunities for students, advising lawyers and administration.

“Prior to the pandemic, SLA’s operations had been largely paper-based, including all of our client files,” says Susan Billington, QC, Executive Director of SLA. “At the time, we were carrying more than 325 client files, with no way to access them.”

To make the transition to a remote workplace, SLA opted to move to a fully digital environment, adopting a new practice management software suite to shift their client service model online. When SLA was able to access their workspace in June, staff diligently scanned and uploaded all pre-existing client files into their new software; when the criminal courts began reopening, SLA caseworkers were able to make more than 80 court appearances in the first three weeks of July.

“By the time we were able to access our office space again, seven students at a time were able to work – in full PPE and with the University’s health and safety protocols – in individual offices,” says Billington. “Combining our new digital tools with in-person sessions, our clients are coming more prepared, with their documentation in order.”

Meanwhile, Edmonton’s SLS had the advantage of digital case files, but significant challenges reaching their client base. With many low-income Edmontonians having challenges accessing stable internet and computing resources, onboarding new clients remotely was extremely challenging.

“After moving our call-in line remote, we were finding it very challenging to onboard our clients without in-person meetings in our offices,” says SLS Student Director Jeremy Hoefsloot. “We are squarely focused on supporting the low-income community: elderly people, new Canadians, the homeless.

“We realized that in order to serve these people, we needed to meet them where they are.”

To that end, SLS adopted a different strategy than their Calgary counterparts, as student volunteers began going out to meet self-represented litigants directly in the courthouses, opening files on the spot and often offering information and support directly to the clients in the moment.

“Talking to people face-to-face has changed my expectations of how I intend to practise law when I complete my JD,” says Hoefsloot. “A lot of people are feeling very anxious – the courts can be seen as byzantine, and the changes to the courts, particularly in light of COVID-19 – have compounded that anxiety.

“Our clients are going through some of the most stressful and heartbreaking moments of their lives. Having compassion and listening have become a much larger part of my work than I expected.”

For SLS and SLA, 2021 will continue to present new challenges, as traditional fundraising events have been delayed and other forms of funding may be impacted by the ongoing pandemic. For more information and to help support these organizations, visit the SLS and SLA websites.