Scaling Up to Systemic Change and Constitutional Cases

Legal clinics as future change-makers

Scaling Up to Systemic Change and Constitutional Cases

Those working in the not-for-profit sector are familiar with having to do more with less. But the challenges of not-for-profit work come with many opportunities for innovative partnerships and projects. One such opportunity is forming partnerships between student legal clinics and social justice organizations advocating for systemic change.

When most lawyers think of legal clinics, they imagine a place where budding lawyers learn practical skills necessary for a successful career: file management, client interviewing, affidavit-drafting, gaining confidence in the courthouse, and navigating forms and procedure. While these are all important skills for students to gain, they are not all that students learn in a clinical experience. 

At their best, legal clinics provide opportunities for students to critically reflect on the role of law in society: how the law shapes individual rights and responsibilities, and the obligations owed by society and the legal profession to members of marginalized communities. By drawing on feminist, critical race and decolonization theories, legal clinics offer students the space and tools to begin integrating an analysis of power structures into their legal practices and professional identities. This work happens alongside the essence of clinical practice: direct service to individual clients.

And students very quickly realize that the access to justice needs of the communities they serve far outstrip any clinic’s individual capacity.

To that end, legal clinics are fertile ground for innovation: they equip students with the tools to see the forest and the trees. As clinicians, students work on dozens of files in a particular area of law and develop considerable expertise. Equally, students begin to broaden their perspectives and move from viewing individual client files as discrete, unconnected matters to situating their clients’ legal problems into broader social and political structures, and to appreciating the ways in which a client’s “legal” problem may be only one of many barriers. It is this deepening and broadening of perspective that is critical for students to identify how clients’ equality and other fundamental constitutional rights may be engaged, and creates the potential for student clinics to “scale up” to systemic responses.

Clients of legal clinics are among those most excluded from meaningful access to the justice system, and that is no less true when the cause of their legal problem engages the potential infringement of constitutional rights and obligations. While these clients (and society at large) may benefit greatly from advancing novel, untested legal arguments to address the systemic roots of disadvantage, they are the least able to pay the significant costs (financial and otherwise) of such advocacy. Many practising lawyers (let alone law students) balk at the prospect of mounting such cases on their own. 

However, with this challenge comes opportunity. Working together, legal clinics and non-profits are well positioned to secure social change; they can inspire and support one another in seeking lasting solutions – inside andKim Hawkins is the Executive Director of Rise Women’s Legal Centre (@WestCoast_LEAF), a student clinic providing family law services to women. Raji Mangat is the Director of Litigation at West Coast LEAF and serves as Liaison Lawyer to Rise Women’s Legal Centre (@RiseWomensLegal). outside the courtroom – to issues impacting dozens of clients. Drawing on the expertise of social justice organizations – their ability to galvanize community and media resources, mobilize pro bono counsel, engage in law reform, and shape constitutional arguments – student clinicians may be provided with unique opportunities to assist in developing the cases that will populate the legal textbooks of tomorrow.