Posted on: Tuesday, December 9/08
Executive Director Martha Mackinnon is always busy. Her modest office is replete with stacks of books and files, and there is a sense of organized chaos to the place. Whether it's dealing with the ongoing repercussions of youth crime legislation or representing the interests of youth in a wide range of forums, there is always much to do.
Welcome to the headquarters for Justice for Children and Youth.
The thirty-year-old, Toronto based organization has had quite an impact on the legal system. A regular fixture before the Supreme Court of Canada in recent years, Justice for Children and Youth (JUST) has been present for every case involving the Youth Criminal Justice Act. The group has been behind a long list of amendments and rulings, from successfully battling a board of education and re-enforcing the need for programs for "hard to serve children" in 1985, to intervening at the SCOC on a landmark case last year involving "lockdowns" in schools and the use of sniffer dogs.
The amazing scope of JUST activities recently found it involved in the case of a fifteen-year-old girl from Winnipeg, Manitoba fighting a court order allowing doctors to give her a blood transfusion against her wishes. Child welfare workers insisted that the transfusion was necessary to help with the teenager's struggle with Crohn's disease, but the girl's religious beliefs strictly forbid it. JUST was granted intervener standing, meaning the court felt the organization could contribute valuable input to the case. Mackinnon is adamant that child protection issues, while important, shouldn't automatically trump a young person's religious and autonomy rights.
Considering it advocates for youth cases countrywide and reaches over 10,000 young people a year, the clinic's staff is rather small, consisting of only eight people. JUST has five lawyers on staff (six if Mackinnon is included) and only two are full time. It's not enough, but Mackinnon hopes that with the help of other clinics and pro bono lawyers, more can be done.
That includes education. The clinic already does what it can to involve itself in the community, informing the public through school visits, speaking at conferences and publishing reams of educational material. JUST keeps its ear to the ground through its Youth Action Committee (YAC), a volunteer advisory committee primarily comprised of secondary school students whose diverse backgrounds and age provide a valuable perspective.
The clinic has literally taken its commitment to the streets. JUST's Street Youth Legal Services (SYLS) provide legal information, advice, referrals and representation to street-involved youth - non-housed people constantly in transition, in and off the streets - at shelters and drop-in centres.
The team, a lawyer working in conjunction with an independent partnership development co-ordinator, assists young people up to twenty-four years old. Funding for SYLS' next two years has become more certain recently with the longer-term commitment of sponsors, including the Ontario Trillium Foundation and long-time funding partner, The Law Foundation of Ontario.
Two thirds of JUST's financial backing comes from Legal Aid Ontario, making it the clinic's core funder. Potential clients coming into the clinic for help are generally obliged to take a financial eligibility test; however, not all clients need to be concerned about qualifying. Eligibility will depend on the circumstances: a youth's income alone may be the basis for eligibility where the young person's legal interests are opposed to those of the parents, while the parents' or guardians' financial situation may be considered in another.
It also depends on location. The only legal clinic of its kind, JUST provides assistance across Ontario either by phone or through its website. In these cases financial circumstances are not verified; JUST provides summary advice and information to youth who need it. Clients in Legal Aid Ontario's certificate program are eligible for assistance in school expulsion cases.
Over the next year, JUST plans on approaching several community clinics and encouraging more involvement in cases concerning youth in schools. The three-step process begins with Mackinnon first addressing the area directors and community clinic board of directors, then clinic staff, duty counsel, pro bono and certificate bar lawyers, followed by community workers and parents.
A follow-up meeting within six months to a year after the initial contact, by web or video conference, would allow the community to learn of any updates in the law and to share concerns regarding youth issues.
In the meantime, Mackinnon will continue fighting to ensure youth are able to have their say