Judges and the UBC Indigenous Community Legal Clinic: learning together

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The UBC Indigenous Legal Clinic in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is both a free community legal service and a law school course where upper year law students work in a clinical environment full time for a term. The clinic is founded on ‘experiential learning’ principles that embrace the concept of ‘learning by doing’. Seven students receive a three week orientation and then set out into the Provincial Court system to assist their clients in family, civil and criminal law matters, under the supervision of a lawyer. The clients are impoverished aboriginal people with legal problems.

Provincial Court judges play an essential role in the orientation process for incoming students. In order to become better lawyers the students need to learn the skills and practical details of lawyering. People actually working in the field are best equipped to pass on this knowledge, so the clinical program looks to the community for expertise. Native Court Workers teach the students the realities of client management. Lawyers introduce them to interviewing techniques. Defence and Crown counsel speak to them about criminal law. And finally, judges give them unique insights into how it all comes together.

From 6 to 12 Provincial Court judges volunteer to participate in the students’ orientation process in each of three terms, discussing topics including evidence, sentencing, First Nations legal issues, and courtroom etiquette. They also introduce the students to BC’s First Nations Courts. In all, the students spend from 10 to 15 hours with judges.

During their clinical training term students develop communication, file management, legal research, writing, advocacy, networking, and problem-solving skills. By providing legal help to unrepresented indigenous people appearing in Provincial Court in the lower mainland and in Pemberton, the students increase access to justice.

Academic Director Patricia Barkaskas and Judge Wolf
Photo Credit: Lois Shelton

Judge Alexander Wolf, who served as Clinic Director before being appointed a judge, says:

“Anyone who has had the privilege of working with law students knows there is something magical about the experience. They are so bright and passionate. I always learn as much from them as they do from me.

I used to tell the students not to forget the simple things. For example, the importance of a proper introduction: how it keeps the record clean, allows the judge to refer to people by name, rather than ‘counsel for the….’ and how it is the basis for a clear, polite courtroom setting with defined roles.

If I find myself muttering about how some young lawyers have forgotten basic lawyering skills, I remember that they may never have been taught those skills. I believe it is our responsibility to share and teach the legal and practice knowledge we often take for granted. When I hear students introduce themselves with “SMITH, S.M.I.T.H. first initial ‘R.’ appearing as temporary articled student with the UBC Indigenous Community Legal Clinic”, I remember it took a whole legal community to get them this far. I love being part of the student’s journey and wonder where the next twenty years of their careers will take them…. and us.”

The Clinic’s hummingbird logo symbolizes advocacy and communication
Photo Credit: Randy Robinson for Clicklaw blog

What services does the clinic offer?

Students supervised by lawyers provide advice, help and representation to clients who self-identify as Indigenous and who cannot afford a lawyer, with problems including criminal and family law matters, human rights complaints, Indian Status applications and hearings before some administrative tribunals. For more information see Indigenous Community Legal Clinic in Clicklaw.