At the UdeM Legal Clinic, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in January, anyone can receive free legal information. Starting in 2022, students will also be able to provide legal advice.
When the Legal Clinic opened its doors in 1972, it offered generalist legal information, and that service still keeps many of the students who staff the clinic busy. “They work under the supervision of a lawyer and handle a variety of issues – contractual obligations, liability, housing issues, family law, and so on,” said lawyer Josée Aspinall, the clinic’s director.
Over time, specialized units have been added. For example, foreign-trained professionals can turn to PROFIL for help with entering the Québec job market: a newly arrived immigrant from Columbia who wants to work as an engineer in Québec will be guided through the process of obtaining recognition of their knowledge and skills from the province’s order of engineers.
There’s help available for entrepreneurs too. At Legal Garage, they will find information on issues such as starting a business. “Many entrepreneurs who would have difficulty accessing legal services come to us for help with, for example, understanding their options when it comes to incorporating their business or setting up a not-for-profit,” explained lawyer Gilles de Saint-Exupéry, a supervisor at Legal Garage.
He added that entrepreneurs whose businesses are already up and running also come to the clinic with questions about matters such as municipal bylaws and labour laws.
Finally, CreatiUM provides specialized intellectual property services.
Up until now, the law students have only been allowed to give legal information, not official legal advice.
“Giving legal information involves presenting the law objectively, as a website does,” explained Aspinall. “For example, say your neighbour has put up a fence on your property and you are wondering about your legal options. You can find information on Google, but then it’s up to you to figure out how the law applies to your particular situation.”
Québec’s Bill 75, tabled in November 2020 by Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette and adopted in December 2020, will give law students more scope to provide legal services. Once the law comes into force (expected this fall), students will be able to provide legal advice and consultations under the close supervision of a licensed lawyer or notary. The new law will therefore help law students develop professionally by allowing them to perform acts that are normally reserved for lawyers and notaries.
This significant legislative amendment will enable the Legal Clinic’s free and accessible services to more effectively meet the needs of its diverse clientele.
What’s next for the Legal Clinic? There are plans to create a mobile unit to serve clients who are unable to come to the university in person and lack the technology for virtual consultations. With funding from the Faculty of Law, a team will travel to vulnerable and marginalized communities throughout Québec to provide them with better access to justice.
First foray into legal practice
For law students in their second or third year, the clinic is a chance to start learning the ropes of their future profession, under personalized supervision. They earn course credits for serving at the clinic for a semester and learn practical skills and people skills in the process.
“The students learn about the code of ethics governing the profession, such as the rules about privacy and protection of personal information,” said lawyer Karine Delvolvé, a supervisor at PROFIL. For the first time, they have a real case to deal with and work on it as part of a team, as in a law office.
“Through real-life practice, students also learn how to conduct themselves professionally with clients – things like not keeping the client waiting, being a good listener, using plain language, tailoring the information to the client’s needs and organizing it properly,” explained Delvolvé. “After three or four months at the clinic, they leave feeling enriched and transformed. They feel useful.”
Support for crime victims
UdeM’s Faculty of Law and School of Criminology have joined forces to open a new legal clinic for victims of crime. It uses an innovative interdisciplinary approach that is the first of its kind in Canada: a law student and a criminology student are paired to provide crime victims with support and legal information to help them make informed decisions.