October 19, 2022 | Alumni

Alumni share memories as U of T’s community legal clinic, Downtown Legal Services, celebrates 50 years

By Nina Haikara

Prasanna Balasundaram at the U of T community legal clinic on Spadina Avenue, an old brick building in a garden.

Downtown Legal Services director Prasanna Balasundaram at the U of T community legal clinic on Spadina Avenue (photo by Nina Haikara).

Over 50 years ago, students from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law received summer project funding from a federal program then-named, Opportunities for Youth.

Cover page of an old, typed document. Title reads, final report of the U of T student’s legal aid society summer project.

“We trust that we have fulfilled our undertaking to convey legal information to those unable to obtain it elsewhere. In this process we have gained valuable experience of, and insight into, the legal system of which will eventually form a part,” write the funding report’s signatories, Charles F. Scott Jr. (BA 1969 VIC, LLB 1972) and Peter D. Quinn (BA 1969 VIC, LLB 1972), members of the U of T Law class of 1972, the class responsible for establishing U of T’s Student Legal Aid Society (SLAS) in 1969.

Scott (1947- 2022) became a leading commercial litigator, and Quinn, an expert in real estate law.

“The students who organized [in the early 1970s] to provide desperately needed legal services to impoverished Torontonians, laid the foundation for what has grown into Downtown Legal Services,” says Prasanna Balasundaram, director of the community legal clinic and clinical legal education program at U of T’s Faculty of Law.

“That original spirit of improving access to justice carries on with the students who step into the clinic today.”


Early beginnings: 710 cases in the summer of 1971

During its first years of operation, the U of T SLAS, was an entirely student-led initiative, supported by faculty advisors and lawyer volunteers, and was a recognized student legal aid society under Ontario’s then Legal Aid Act.

The Students’ Administrative Council (now U of T Students' Union) provided two rooms for the SLAS’s Campus Legal Assistance Centre (CLAC) at 44 St. George Street. Ontario Legal Aid Plan, by way of the “Student Defender” office in Old City Hall, distributed suitable cases that could be handled by law students at U of T and Osgoode Hall Law School at York University.

This is in keeping with the idea that a great University should concern itself with its neighbours

"This is in keeping with the idea that a great University should concern itself with its neighbours and not be restricted in its involvement with those immediately connected to it," note the report’s authors.

In the summer of 1971, SLAS also operated 16 community “clinics” in partnership with established social agencies, employing 23 law students who handled a total of 710 cases, from convictions to small claims court.

The dedicated students who were learning outside the classroom, petitioned then-dean, University Professor Emeritus Martin L. Friedland (BCom 1955 UC, LLB 1958, Hon LLD 2001), to integrate the clinic into the law school’s curriculum for course credit. The faculty hired its first supervising staff lawyer, U of T Law graduate, Richard “Dick” Gathercole (LLB 1965).

Memories from some of the more than 5,000 alumni who have worked at Downtown Legal Services

Named Downtown Legal Services (DLS) in 1982, the clinic now specializes in six areas of law including, housing, family, employment, criminal, refugee and immigration, as well as university affairs, representing U of T students on issues related to the Code of Student Conduct or Appeals of University Decisions.

The clinic today is housed in the Fasken building, a three-story Victorian house at 655 Spadina Avenue, where nearly 2,000 clients are served each year by 100 student caseworkers and volunteers, who are supervised by five staff lawyers and its director. More than 5,000 U of T Law alumni have participated in the clinic’s community work since its inception.

It wasn't just me – a lot of people who went through this program stayed within ‘people law’

One of Canada’s eminent refugee and immigration lawyers, U of T Law alumna Barbara Jackman (LLB 1976), says her clinic experience deeply influenced her career path.

“I went into law school thinking I would be a labour lawyer. [At law school] I realized immigrants had no representation,” she says.

"It wasn't just me who went into immigration refugee law – a lot of people who went through this program stayed within ‘people law’.”

Like Jackman, recent U of T Law graduate Rachel Bryce (JD/MGA 2021) is today a practising refugee and immigration lawyer.

“DLS is hands-down the best experience I've had at law school,” she says.

“It offers the perfect mix of advocacy, activism, client counseling and legal work – and that opportunity is unparalleled.”

A anniversary panel discussion on October 20

On Thursday, October 20, Balasundaram, who in 2020, was among the lawyers representing refugees who helped strike down the Safe Third Country Agreement in a federal court, will moderate an anniversary panel discussion, with student caseworker Nina Patti and former client Rossana Ibarra.

“The panel will explore how law students at DLS develop insights into the social reality of law and legal institutions while making a tremendous impact on the lives of clients,” says Balasundaram.

Patti, a second-year law student, says being a caseworker in the clinic’s employment law division has been a highlight of her law school experience. It has given her valuable, hands-on experience, including negotiating a settlement at a Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario mediation, as well as representing a client before the Ontario Labour Relations Board.

I am proud to be part of an organization that provides such a needed service

“Without DLS, most of my clients would not have been otherwise able to access legal help, and I am proud to be part of an organization that provides such a needed service,” she says.

University Professor Emeritus J. Robert S. Prichard (LLB 1975, Hon LLD 2002), who served as the sixth dean of the law school (1984-1990) and thirteenth president of U of T (1990-2000), reflected on the clinic’s history as a former member of the SLAS executive in the early 1970s.

“The people involved in the SLAS were great. I remain very proud of my association with all of them,” says Prichard.

Funding for Downtown Legal Services is provided by Legal Aid Ontario, the Law Foundation of Ontario, U of T’s Faculty of Law, U of T students and donations from alumni and friends.

Read more about Downtown Legal Services

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