Epstein Cole LLP joins Pro Bono Students Canada as founding partner of new Family Justice Centre
‘Making the change we want to see’
by Nicole Landa, Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) intern
Empowerment, accessibility and expanding the reach of access to legal aid are the core values of the new Family Justice Centre (FJC), established at Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC) in partnership with Epstein Cole LLP, Canada’s largest family law firm.
“There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated Ontario's access to justice crisis, creating additional barriers and uncertainties for low-income litigants and their families,” says Brittany Twiss, PBSC’s National Director.
“The Family Justice Centre is a heartening response by law students and family law lawyers who are keen to make a real and tangible impact.”
The popularity of video conferencing, such as Zoom, has seen a global surge during the COVID-19 pandemic. Such tools allow people to connect to almost anyone, across geographical borders, instantaneously. FJC is making use of the technology to help those who require legal aid connect with future and current lawyers.
The FJC, which launched in February, was made possible through a generous gift to PBSC by Epstein Cole.
“Utilizing secure and accessible technology, the centre will support self-represented litigants through direct services like summary advice and court form drafting, as well as educational resources about family law legislation and process,” says Twiss.
“We are thrilled to see the momentum building, and we couldn’t be more grateful for the invaluable support of our long-term partners, Legal Aid Ontario and Epstein Cole LLP, who have funded the launch of the FJC.”
The FJC aims to address traditionally overlooked gaps in the Canadian family justice system by providing free legal aid to those who are unable to afford a lawyer, but who may not qualify for pro bono legal aid. The FJC will host virtual clinics where family law lawyers will supervise law students across Ontario who will deliver legal services to litigants. Along with these legal clinics, the FJC is also currently creating a repository of public legal educational recourses to support those who may be interested in self-representing.
“The Family Justice Centre is dedicated to empowering those who are not usually at the receiving end of legal aid,” says Jessica Commanda, a 2L student involved with the FJC. Commanda adds centre aims to “reach as many people as possible and make the justice system as easily accessible as possible”.
Roslyn Tsao, Managing Partner at Epstein Cole and a lead advocate for creating the FJC, says it's a goal of the firm's founding partners to advance family law.
“Our founding partners have always maintained a culture of supporting the advancement of family law. From day one, the firm's culture has been to volunteer to help with training, mentoring and advance and educate on family law. The culture of pro bono work or any initiative with a focus on access to justice is important to us. This has always been part of our ethos.”
The centre provides legal aid to those who need it most and enables law students to have the first-hand experience helping people navigate legal processes. Students are able to put their education into practice while shadowing family lawyers in Ontario.
“I feel strongly about using law students, I loved clinic work as a law student. As family lawyers we get to see law students learn on the job. They will be the next source of future family law,” said Tsao.
Commanda, who is interested in stepping into the world of family law when she graduates, says she is grateful for the opportunity to gain real-world family law experience, shadow lawyers and network with other students across Ontario.
“As a law student, this opportunity is perfect for me. I get to help people, network with incredibly ambitious fellow law students and work closely with top family lawyers”.
Commanda values being able to bridge the gap between qualifying for legal aid and having the means to afford a lawyer.
“[This gap] is why there is such an influx of self-represented litigants. Family law is very procedural and it can be difficult enough when you have someone telling you what to do, let alone figuring it out on your own without any experience with the legal system, on top of dealing with life stressors.
“Putting that stress and burden on someone like a single mother, or anyone living near the poverty line, it's impossible. These are the gaps we are hoping to catch.”
The FJC is innovative in its combination of access to legal justice while adapting to the new virtual world. Solutions of this kind are expected to bring together future and current lawyers to deliver pro bono legal services to low-income, self-represented family law litigants in Ontario.
“We want to connect lawyers who have a pro bono spirit. COVID has shown us that we can do this kind of work remotely and that we can connect people from various regions,” added Tsao.
Commanda emphasizes virtual law clinics are necessary.
"If you don't live near a courthouse, you are restricted in terms of what services you can access. Operating virtually actually means that we can help people from across Ontario. Members of our team are working to understand what it means to help those in rural areas. If we are not able to help someone, we try to provide a referral for a service in their specific area from the extensive referral resource we have been developing.”
The Family Justice Centre’s core value of making family law more accessible aligns with Epstein Cole’s dedication to access to justice.
“We would rather be part of making changes,” says Epstein Cole’s Tsao, “as opposed to waiting for others to make the changes we want to see.”