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Access to Justice: Rise Women’s Legal Centre connecting with diverse communities | Thomas Cromwell

Thursday, March 01, 2018 @ 11:59 AM | By Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell %>
Thomas Cromwell
This is part two of an interview I had with Kim Hawkins, executive director of the Rise Women’s Legal Centre in Vancouver.

TC: Rise was, as you said, an access to justice initiative. How does it contribute to better access to justice?

KH: Rise seeks to enhance access to justice in multiple ways. The first is by directly providing legal advice and representation to women who have no other means of getting legal help. Secondly, Rise seeks to transform legal services from within by creating an opportunity for law students to learn how to deliver community-based legal services and continue to promote access to justice as they move forward in their careers. Finally, Rise works with a litigation director for West Coast LEAF to identify cases that have the potential to advance women’s legal rights at a systemic level by serving as test cases.

Rise also provides different levels of service to clients in an attempt to stretch our limited resources to meet a diverse variety of needs. Rise maintains a small library which women can access during office hours, whether or not they are a client at Rise. Women whose needs are suitable for summary advice clinics are offered the option of a one-hour appointment with one of Rise’s volunteer family lawyers. The majority of women receive service through Rise’s student program which provides a variety of unbundled services, up to and including representation at discrete provincial court appearances.

TC: Are you busy? 

KH: The response to Rise has been overwhelming. Our clinic opened its doors in May 2016, and we have been running a wait list ever since. At the start of this term, we had over 140 women waiting for service, and we know that the women are just the tip of the iceberg. The response from the legal community, non-profit community and judiciary has also been overwhelming, in a really positive way — we could not have accomplished so much in just 18 months without this crucial support.

TC: What are the biggest benefits of Rise as you see it?  

KH: I think the biggest benefit of Rise is its ability to work simultaneously at the micro and macro levels.

As a legal clinic our main focus is on the provision of direct services to clients. We work hard to keep our services client-centred and responsive to the unique needs of the women who seek us out. We take family violence very seriously and frequently have to seek protection orders for our clients. Because we are small, we are forced to be adaptable and find creative ways to solve problems.

At the same time, because we are able to focus on a particular area of law and clientele, we have an amazing opportunity to build up expertise that goes beyond individual client cases, to connect with other women-serving organizations and non-profits to collaborate around best practices and to share what we learn with the legal profession.

The other major benefit, of course, is sending our brilliant alumni out into the legal community where we are confident that they will help to transform the legal profession from within.

TC: What challenges are you facing?

KH: The single biggest challenge has always been balancing student workloads in such a way that we can provide meaningful services to clients while keeping expectations manageable for students, and while still being able to close files and let women on the waiting list into the clinic.

The challenges that our clients face are very diverse — their legal issues often involve intersecting areas of law, and many include proceedings in both provincial and Supreme Court. It is heartbreaking to turn clients away because their needs are too complex to be handled effectively in a student clinic, knowing that there is nowhere else to send them and they will likely have to represent themselves or give up.

Even for those clients who have files open at Rise, we have to limit the amount of work that we do so that we can continue to move files through the clinic. We really focus on trying to provide enough assistance to stabilize our clients’ situations and make sure that there is protection in place if it’s needed, but women often need more help than we can provide with our limited resources.

TC: If you could give one piece of advice to anyone interested in helping to address the gap between need and availability of legal services, what would you say?

KH: I think you have to reconcile yourself to the fact that you aren’t ever going to be able to fully address the gap between need and availability, and learn to focus on the small percentage of people that you can help.

At the same time, it’s really important to work in community and to continually assess your accessibility to clients. The barriers that prevent clients from receiving service can be shockingly small to legal professionals — not having enough money to pay for gas to come to an appointment, running out of phone minutes that the client needs to access the Internet and answer an e-mail — let alone larger barriers like language, literacy, discrimination and so many others. It’s important that access to justice initiatives attempt to build bridges with a variety of communities to make sure that they remain responsive to the needs of the most marginalized clients.

This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.

The Honourable Thomas Cromwell served 19 years as an appellate judge and chairs the Chief Justice’s Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters. He retired from the Supreme Court of Canada in September of 2016 and is now senior counsel to the national litigation practice at Borden Ladner Gervais.