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Alex Don sm

National pro bono initiative responds to Canadians hit hard by pandemic legal problems

Monday, June 29, 2020 @ 9:32 AM | By John Schofield


A growing movement to support Canadians struggling with legal problems brought on by the COVID-19-pandemic has so far recruited about 25 lawyers and 415 law students.

Launched in May by McGill University Faculty of Law graduates Alex Don, Mark Mejia Kuznetsova and Rapti Ratnayake, the National Canadian Lawyers’ Initiative (NCLI) has so far assisted more than 100 people, providing one to five hours of legal advice online per person or referring them to a local pro bono legal service, where possible. In addition, law students are researching and writing articles on a variety of COVID-19 related legal issues to post on the NCLI website.

Alex Don, NCLI president

“Individuals and small businesses are really struggling because of the shutdown,” said Don, who has assumed the role of NCLI president. “What we realized was what was borne out of COVID really turned into a massive access-to-justice initiative using a virtual platform.”

Don said it all started when a friend of the family who runs a language school asked him for help with a pandemic-related landlord-tenant issue. Before he knew it, he had taken on a couple of pro bono cases, and the huge need quickly became apparent.

In many cases, he told The Lawyer’s Daily, the organization’s virtual model allows it to match clients with lawyers anywhere in the country, including underserved rural areas. “What we’re trying to do is use today’s tools to fix today’s problems,” he explained. “There’s no reason why a lawyer from Quebec can’t help a person from B.C., if it’s a federal matter.

“Medical practitioners stepped up at the beginning of the pandemic to save lives,” he added. “We want to help them save their livelihoods. It is really up to us to step up and help people and make sure our economy gets through this.”

But the legal problems people are seeking help with go beyond business or work. Mejia Kuznetsova, who is serving as the group’s vice-president, said 35 per cent of the cases are related to family law, 16 per cent concern employment issues, about 10 per cent involve landlord-tenant disputes, six per cent touch on consumer contracts, and four per cent deal with immigration matters.

“There are a lot of emotional stories out there that we’re receiving,” said Mejia Kuznetsova. Added Ratnayake: “The tone is frustration and a lot of urgency.”

In some instances, said Don, “we’ve even seen older people reach out to us and say, ‘I’m in a high-risk category. I probably need to update my will.’ ”

Some local pro bono clinics have capped their cases because of the overwhelming demand, so NCLI is offering a critical stopgap for those with nowhere to turn, he said. The organization also provides an appealing opportunity for lawyers because it can provide support from law students — something pro bono clinics typically don’t do. For some lawyers, said Don, the timing is right to take on extra volunteer work because business is slower than usual.

But apart from lawyers, “students are a very important cog in making the magic happen,” he added. “These young men and women just had the rug pulled out from under their feet” because of the pandemic, and NCLI will provide them with much needed experience.

Many students are currently receiving the Canada Emergency Student Benefit and NCLI would like to harness the money to help communities and individual Canadians in need, said Don. In addition, as part of the Canada Student Service Grant program, the federal government is offering to pay up to $5,000 to students who get involved in a community project. They will receive $1,000 for every 100 hours volunteered.

Experienced Toronto lawyers Georgina Carson from MacDonald & Partners LLP, Robert Dunford of Gowling WLG and James Zibarras of Miller Thomson LLP have agreed to serve as advisers.

The organization is actively seeking the participation of more lawyers because only members of the bar are qualified to provide legal advice, he noted. NCLI is also receiving in-kind support from firms such as Talk Shop Media, a PR firm with offices in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto.

Brad Smith, Weilers Law

Brad Smith, a partner with Weilers Law in Thunder Bay, Ont., said he volunteered with NCLI to improve access to justice for people in serious need and to help law students who have lost out on opportunities this summer because of the pandemic.

“One of the things I learned a long time ago when I got into this profession,” said Smith, who also teaches a course at Lakehead University’s Bora Laskin Faculty of Law, “is that generally lawyers are quite giving of their time. So I think it’s good to see that students are seeing at the beginning of their careers that the giving of their time and knowledge is an important part of the profession.”

Don said he, Ratnayake and Mejia Kuznetsova are committed to keeping the initiative going for at least a year, but will try to keep it alive if the need is there and funding is available. In an effort to build more support, NCLI has already met with Burlington, Ont., Liberal MP Karina Gould, and is hoping to arrange a meeting with federal Justice Minister David Lametti.

The three founders are encouraged by the organization’s rapid growth so far. “It’s put some wind in our sails,” said Don. “We really feel like men and women on a mission. What we really want to do is take that focus and translate it into more resources.”

Lawyers and law students interested in getting involved may contact the National Canadian Lawyers’ Initiative through its website, www.natcanlaw.com.

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for The Lawyer’s Daily please contact John Schofield at john.schofield@lexisnexis.ca or call (905) 415-5891.