Written by a Rise student, this powerful reflection evokes striking imagery, detailing the student clinician’s experiences working at Rise this past semester. This reflection appeared in Issue 151, on Diversity in Verdict magazine, published by the Trial Lawyers Association of BC in the Winter 2017 edition.
Women Need Better Access to Justice – By: Sarah Khan
“Think of the clinic as a wartime hospital.” The warning from our supervising lawyers, Kim Hawkins and Vandana Sood, came with the appropriate caveat that they did not intend to downplay the realities of actual wartime hospitals. Rather, they were trying to prepare us for what we’d experience over the next semester while working at the clinic. It was orientation week at Rise Women’s Legal Centre, and myself and the four other student clinicians, received their advice with some skepticism. This was a legal clinic developed to address family law matters; we were hardly in the trenches. A few weeks later, I’d find myself on the phone with a consulting lawyer who’d say, “You know, those clients of yours. They walk in needing legal representation, and actually, they needed it eleven years ago.”
I wish these representations were a stretch. I wish that our clients, had other options, that they weren’t pinning their final hopes on Rise. Mostly, I wish that their cases weren’t hemorrhaging legal problems.
Perhaps it’s indicative of the sanitized law school classrooms I’ve recently emerged from, but I thought the clinical law experience would involve solutions to problems that were in their infancy. A client walks through the door, concerned about what to do now that she’s separated. I run through the basics of child support, property division. We draw up a separation agreement. Persuaded by its sheer reasonableness, the ex-partner eagerly signs the agreement, having already obtained independent legal advice.
Instead, a client walks through the door, and she can’t even begin to tell her story. I try to coax out the details: Are you safe? Are your children safe? Sometimes she will say yes when her answer is no. Sometimes there are no children— there never were— but she’s separated, unable to work due to health complications, and her ex has dissipated all their family property. Sometimes she will tell me about the eleven years she’s spent in negotiations, then in court, fighting for parenting time. Sometimes she’ll say that her ex-partner loves their children, that her ex-partner is a good parent. This is important to her. I listen. I make note of safety concerns. There are always safety concerns. I collect the pieces of her story and I wonder at how one person can have survived all this.
As a student clinician, I see three new clients per week for an intake interview. With five of us this semester, that’s a total of 15 intakes weekly, 60 in a month. And by next semester, the clinic will be up to six students, and 72 new clients per month. Of course, we don’t have anywhere close to the capacity— in funding, in people power, in supports— to provide each client with full legal representation. The intake interview becomes a process of determining how dire the client’s situation is: a necessary form of triage. We screen for urgent issues, or discrete matters we can help with. When we have the capacity to step in and provide full legal representation, we do so. We are careful to refer clients to advocates in the community for general support.
Very occasionally, we get the tidy legal issues— a client comes in and just wants guidance in creating a legally binding separation agreement. We talk her through the legal issues, we show her how to do it. She’s the sort of client who’s getting the help she needs, when she needs it. If we do our job right, she won’t have to endure the expense and pain of dragging her most personal relationships through the legal system. She will never need to resort to a wartime hospital to stop the bleeding, stabilize her heartbeat. She’ll be okay.