Legal Assistance of Windsor (LAW) celebrates 40 years of helping their community
Posted: Friday, October 24, 2014
Though it is unusual for a community law clinic at a university to have a high community profile, Legal Assistance of Windsor (LAW) at the University of Windsor enjoys that singular position. Respect for the clinic has been earned through the outstanding legal and social work services it has rendered reliably to the community for the past 40 years.
“We are a unique clinic in that we have had both legal and social work services from the beginning.”
On October 25th, LAW’s 40th anniversary will be marked with an afternoon symposium, Community-based Advocacy: From Street to Courtroom, at the university’s Faculty of Law. In the evening, a celebratory dinner at the St. Clair Centre for the Arts will include the presentation of a commemorative plaque to LAW executive director Marion Overholt by Mary-Anne Stevens, director general of LAO’s Windsor District.
A unique clinic for 40 years
Marion worked at LAW as a law student, returned as a staff lawyer in 1988 and became executive director in 2013. Accordingly, with over 25 years of experience at LAW she is an apt spokesperson, as well as director, for the student clinic.
“We are a unique clinic in that we have had both legal and social work services from the beginning,” says Marion, who is also executive director of student law clinic Community Legal Aid. “It is all interconnected because poverty law issues overlap health and housing issues, and social assistance. Because we work in these different elements, we understand what the connections are and how it causes people to bump up against some barriers.”
Collaborative advocacy through two disciplines
The clinic’s current mix of students, including three from the School of Social Work and 14 from the Faculty of Law, work part-time alongside lawyers, social workers and support staff. For up to two semesters in a row, students acquire practical skills through handling clients’ matters.
“We are huge advocates for that combination of skill sets because it is so helpful for clients,” says Marion. “The learning environment for our students is very rich because they can take the best qualities of each discipline and learn from them. I have learned an incredible amount from working with social workers for 25 years. It has really affected the way I advocate as a lawyer.”
Creating positive change
Many legal and social matters encountered at LAW arise from Windsor’s local issues including high unemployment, poverty, human trafficking and lack of Aboriginal legal supports. An important lesson LAW offers to students is that no matter how dire the situation, there is a way to create positive change. To that end, a LAW steering committee is working with the Aboriginal advocacy community to determine what Aboriginal legal services are missing and bring them into the city. LAW is also playing a lead role in a determined human trafficking initiative called WEFIGHT. Shelley Gilbert, LAW’s coordinator of social work services, is chair of the initiative.
“It’s been a very exciting, very cutting-edge initiative,” says Marion. “It’s a good example of a time we came to the table and said we can play a role here. We coordinate that committee and brought together 16 community agencies that look at human trafficking.”
Through partnering with Windsor agencies dealing with similar issues, LAW gives students the support of a very effective network.
“These networks are very helpful to students because when you deal in poverty law, individual advocacy only takes a case so far,” explains Marion. “Windsor went into the 2008 recession earlier than anywhere else in the province, so our clinic was very involved in looking at opportunities for displaced workers with Employment Ontario and training programs. We helped lead some of that discussion because of our experience with EI and social assistance.”
Challenging the system
Some students witness problems caused by poverty for the first time while working in the clinic. Their clients’ issues can give new meaning to the problem of access to justice.
“When students look at access to justice issues before LAW, they may define it as access to a lawyer,” says Marion. “I think through the clinic experience, they understand that the law isn’t neutral. If you have a low income, you have a very different experience of the legal system than if you are middle or upper class. Students appreciate that those kinds of barriers are created by the law itself, and we are looking at how you challenge this system. We are always working with students to help them understand what they are seeing, why the situation is like this and what they can do about it.”
Developing their own careers
The students’ education at LAW is effective judging from the substantial number who pursue a career in legal aid. Many work in community clinics or as duty counsel after graduation.
“One of the best things about my job is to work with these students and then sit back and watch them develop their own careers,” says Marion. “That’s extremely satisfying because there is so much room in our profession for people with different experiences who say they really want to work with clients and help the situation. I just revel in that. The LAW experience gives them a very good foundation.”
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