New legal support available for low-income Edmontonians in human rights disputes

·2 min read
Law student Elias Jimenez helped launch the Human Rights Project. (Elias Jimenez - image credit)
Law student Elias Jimenez helped launch the Human Rights Project. (Elias Jimenez - image credit)

A new project aims to reduce backlog at the Alberta Human Rights Commission while supporting litigants in the Edmonton area who can't afford a lawyer.

Launched by the commission and Student Legal Services (SLS), the Human Rights Project ensures low-income earners involved in a human rights complaint have legal representation early on in the process.

"This project essentially allows us to help those individuals either at mediations or at tribunal dispute resolutions and act as agents for low income individuals to make sure they have some form of representation," said Elias Jimenez, a coordinator for Student Legal Services, who helped with the launch.

"By allowing law students, which is what we are, to provide advice and help to those individuals, with the help of our supervising lawyers, we hope to be able to make a dent in the significant backlog of cases that the tribunal has."

Right now, says Jimenez, it takes roughly two years from the time a claim is filed to reach the resolution stage — a process slowed down by claimants and respondents representing themselves.

Jimenez said a lack of representation often leaves people ill informed, with nobody to turn to for help in a process that can be intimidating.

"That is bad for multiple reasons," he said. "First, because obviously you can't fight for what's best for yourself. But also, if expectations are not set early on in the process, that really just does create a lot more work for everyone involved, whether it's the employer or the individual or the commission."

Self-represented complainants or respondents can apply to SLS, which determines eligibility.

"It will help to enhance the individual's ability to participate in the human rights tribunal processes," Cam Stewart, spokesperson for the Alberta Human Rights Commission, wrote in an email to CBC.

In April 2019, the commission launched an initiative to more efficiently deal with a caseload of about 1,700 files. By April of this year, nearly all the files had been assigned and 78 per cent had been completed.

SLS is made up of about 100 law students from the University of Alberta who volunteer their time, in addition to a few paid leaders and coordinators. They also provide support in civil, family and criminal matters.