Written by a Rise student, this thoughtful reflection details the student clinician’s increased understanding of family law and their experiences transitioning from the classroom to working in the clinic at Rise. This reflection appeared in Issue 151, on Diversity in Verdict magazine, published by the Trial Lawyers Association of BC in the Winter 2017 edition.
From Classroom to Clinic – By: Arash Ehteshami
In my first weeks at Rise Women’s Legal Centre, I quickly came to realize that my knowledge around family law legislation and case law did not help me in the slightest when trying to understand the complex mechanics of actually navigating the court process. Even the simplest task, like initiating proceedings in either Provincial or Supreme Court, became mind-numbingly difficult to grasp, despite ready access to CLE materials and bountiful online resources. I may have been shell-shocked being thrown into a clinic environment, but nonetheless, it has made me appreciate the barriers many people face when trying to access our courts. And this is coming from someone that has had the privilege of attending law school for the past couple of years.
There is a very real difference, I find, between reading about divorce and family violence in a textbook and having a client share their first-hand experience about the same topic, face-to-face. No matter how explicitly a textbook (or even a judgment) tries to frame a client’s experience, it still lacks the ‘human’ element that makes working at Rise so different from being in the classroom. I don’t remember a single time in law school where a client was described to have suddenly broken out in tears, trying to recall years of abuse suffered at the hand of a former partner. Instead, family law is systematically decontextualized in the classroom into isolated issues, where emotion is superfluous and takes a back-seat to the ‘real’ issues at hand.
The change from the classroom to the real world has further been quite drastic for me: facts that were previously handed out on a silver platter now require careful questioning of clients, and issues that were blatantly obvious to spot in fact-patterns have now become an exercise in balancing priorities, from most-to least-urgent. While I’m unsure to what extent the PLTC module on family law can bridge the gap between the classroom and working with clients, I know that once the metaphorical rubber hit the figurative road, being able to read pleadings quickly and getting a handle on a client’s case took precedence over knowing what exact paragraph the test for relocation was set out in Gordon v Goertz. It’s amazing to look back on the last two months at Rise and realize just how far my understanding of family law has come.
Overall, I find myself very fortunate to be able to complement my studies with the practical know-how offered at Rise. Not only will I graduate with tangible, real-life experience in dealing with clients, I also get the opportunity to take family law for a spin and see if it truly is a field that I want to commit my time and energy to, once I graduate.
Moreover, it is incredible just how much positive work we can do for clients that literally have nowhere else to turn for their family and child protection matters. Sometimes, even giving the client an hour of time to listen to her legal problem, without making her pay out of her ears can help in easing, even if only temporarily the crushing emotional and psychological stress that she may have lived with for years. It is both inspiring and humbling.
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.