A Golden Anniversary

Student Legal Services marks 50 years of pro bono work

Priscilla Popp - 28 May 2019

Fifty years. That's how much time has passed since a group of University of Alberta Faculty of Law students began operating a clinic for free legal information called Student Legal Services of Edmonton.

The student-managed, non-profit society has gone through significant change since 1969 (a school bus painted in psychedelic colours was one of its first official office spaces), however its core goal has remained unchanged.

Though student volunteers are not yet lawyers, they are able to provide important legal information (not legal advice), to the low-income community of Edmonton that doesn't qualify for legal aid, as well as to all UAlberta undergraduate students with a valid OneCard.

Legal Aid Alberta offers assistance to Albertans facing legal issues, but eligibility is dependent on whether service is offered for a particular legal problem and on finances. The latter is determined by the client's net income for the last 30 days, last 12 months, their family size and assets.

SLS volunteers accompany clients to court, and gain skills and experiences that stick with them long after their time at UAlberta Law is complete - assets that can prove valuable to their careers.

"The first thing I ask in interviewing any articling student is, 'Did you work for SLS?' " said Dave Mercer, QC, '80 LLB, who was chair of the society from 1979-1980 and is now one of four partners at Nickerson Roberts Holinski & Mercer.

He said involvement with SLS demonstrates an ability to make a commitment, and taught him crucial skills such as advocacy and how to prepare for court.

"A large part of SLS when I was chair was assisting the less fortunate in society who otherwise wouldn't qualify for legal aid," he said. "There was a huge commitment from law students to Student Legal Services."

That steady commitment by students (more than 250 volunteer each year), together with the increasing need of Edmonton residents, has SLS located in two offices - its primary space at East Campus House, half a block east of the Law Centre, and downtown on 106 Street.

There are currently four "projects" or areas of law in which assistance can be offered - civil, criminal, family, and legal education and reform. Volunteers can also become involved with Pro Bono Student Canada, which conducts legal research for non-profit organizations.

In 2018, for the civil and family law projects alone, volunteers provided free legal information to 1,772 individuals via the phone or in person. Walk-ins are welcome at SLS.

The opportunity to provide free legal information is a staple of many graduates' law school experience, and a highlight that simply goes unmatched.

Andy Sims, QC,'74 LLB, volunteered for all three years of law school, and was a dedicated member of the SLS steering committee.

He said its mandate fit in very well with social attitudes of the early 1970s.

"We were unabashedly student radicals, and were committed to using law for broad social purposes," Sims said.

Eighteen months after he graduated, the SLS steering committee hired Sims as a full-time supervising lawyer.

He later became chair of the Alberta Labour Relations Board from 1985-1994. He has managed a labour arbitration and mediation practice for the past 25 years, and more recently conducted three labour reviews for the government of Alberta.

Though Sims has had his fair share of professional accomplishments since his time at SLS, he values the experience and people he met during his time there. "There's still a strong bond among us," he said.

Ron Hopp, QC, knows about the strong bonds SLS builds. The beloved UAlberta Law professor emeritus was a supervising civil law advisor from 1976-2015, having been a part of the graduating class of 1971.

His contributions and commitment to helping students and clients in need is recognized by volunteers new and old.

He recalled one client in particular who demonstrated the impact SLS can have on those it helps.

After Hopp and his students assisted her with a civil matter, she presented them with two gifts: cans of dog food, part of what she had been using to feed herself.

"These are the people" he said, "that we set out to attract and build trust in (us)."

It was on the recommendation of his late wife, Anne Hopp (an administrator for the Faculty), that he became involved with the society in the first place.

The couple's unwavering support for SLS didn't go unnoticed. The Ronald and Anne Hopp Bursary is named in their honour.

"The best part of my life is the opportunity to teach, and the people I've met," said Hopp."You can't beat SLS for what it does for the public and for the students who so willingly provide their help."

Sarah McFadyen, '20 JD, is the 2018-19 executive co-ordinator for SLS, working as a liaison between the management committee and the board of directors. She, too, recognizes the importance of SLS to the community.

In her position, she functions as a liaison between the management committee and board of directors.

"It's one of those things that if we don't do it, who's going to?" she said about the services she and other volunteers provide.

McFadyen, who still volunteers with the civil and family project, works at SLS five to seven days a week, for three to five hours per day.

"I really enjoy working on family files. It's a great feeling when you help someone get the child support they're owed or more parenting time with their children," she said.

"The individuals I've helped have always been so grateful that SLS is here for them because there's no way they could've afforded a lawyer for their situation or felt comfortable doing it themselves."

Moreover, the experience she's gaining by working on such cases has helped her decide her future career likely lies in family and civil law.

"When I first came to law school, I didn't know what I liked and didn't like. Volunteering with SLS made me figure out what I like," she said, adding that she hopes to go into family and civil law after graduation.

Though each person involved with SLS is as unique as the clients who need their help, there seems to be one common takeaway: time spent volunteering is time never forgotten.