New UNB law clinic to offer free legal services for low-income clients

As of 2009, the New Brunswick Law Society Act allows law students like Robyn Forbes to work under faculty supervision.    (UNB Media Services - image credit)
As of 2009, the New Brunswick Law Society Act allows law students like Robyn Forbes to work under faculty supervision. (UNB Media Services - image credit)

People who can't afford a lawyer and don't qualify for legal aid now have another option.

The Faculty of Law at the University of New Brunswick is now offering free legal services provided by some of its students.

It's part of a class that gives students the opportunity to manage civil case files and provide free representation to those in need.

The UNB Legal Clinic is led by supervising lawyer and faculty member Jeannette Savoie, who has years of experience working with clients experiencing poverty.

Savoie said the students under her supervision will be dealing with cases related to tenancy, employment, social assistance and small claims.

Cameron Fitch/UNB Media Services
Cameron Fitch/UNB Media Services

She said low-income people in these situations are often in a vulnerable spot.

"That's where the students with their training could be helpful in presenting your case, because a lot of these administrative tribunals, the central issue is natural justice … the right to be heard," said Savoie.

"Sometimes when people are vulnerable, they don't always know that they have those kinds of rights."

As of 2009, a legislation added to the New Brunswick Law Society Act allows law students at UNB or the University of Moncton to practise law under faculty supervision.

Legal aid doesn't provide assistance for civil matters except for some aspects of family law, such as child protection and filing for divorce.

Hands-on experience

Robyn Forbes, in her final year of law school, said this will "give us a better understanding when we are out there in our own practice."

Law student Ana Mihajlovic said law school is often a lot of writing papers, reading textbooks and reviewing cases with not too much hands-on experience

"It will just be really good to sort of get that one-on-one experience with someone who has worked in this field for a very long time," she said.

An underrepresented population

Forbes said low-income individuals are underrepresented and simply don't have access to legal services without free programs like the clinic, citing the example of low-income students moving to Fredericton for the first time.

She said since laws relating to tenancy vary by province, this can leave landlords with the upper hand.

"This can lead to situations where [students are] taken advantage of," she said.

Submitted by Ana Mihajlovic
Submitted by Ana Mihajlovic

Forbes said when legal services are not available to those without financial means, they may be stuck navigating the legal system by themselves.

"If you have somebody such as a lawyer or a student who can act as guides under their instruction, then it just makes it a little bit easier," she said.

Mihajlovic said the clinic will provide an important service to the community, focusing on housing issues such as rent increases, renovictions and housing insecurity.

Savoie said this program will hopefully fill some of the gaps not covered by legal aid.

She said the clinic has a financial means tests for potential clients, similar to the test used by legal aid, but slightly more lenient since the clinic doesn't take fees from clients.

She said most people on income assistance, pension, minimum wage or people with no income at all will likely qualify for the clinic's services.

A stigma-free hub

The law clinic is currently being set up in the Fredericton Downtown Community Health Centre on King Street.

Savoie said this spot already serves as a training location for nursing students and social work students and now UNB Law will be joining the experiential hub.

Ed Bowes/University of New Brunswick Law
Ed Bowes/University of New Brunswick Law

She said it's a good location because people who are marginalized already use services offered there.

"This is already comfortable for the clients, they're used to coming here," said Savoie. "So we're just another service that's going to be provided."