Chief Justice Wagner, I can’t afford to help my community | Elsa Ascencio

Originally published via The Lawyer’s Daily on Wednesday, February 13, 2019:

Recently Chief Justice Richard Wagner granted an interview to The Lawyer’s Daily. The headline read, “Chief Justice Wagner improves public communication, brings new ideas, change to top court, CJC and NJI.”

In the interview, Chief Justice Wagner provided his insight on a few topics such as access to justice. The chief justice supported the idea of lawyers doing pro bono work, as required by their law society to address the access to justice crisis in the legal system; “Now you will see more and more law societies who will require that part of being a lawyer is also giving some pro bono work, and that’s very good.”

While I do agree with the chief justice that law societies should play a more active role in the access to justice issue; I do not agree that law societies should be promoting mandatory pro bono work among lawyers.

I’m not the only legal professional who believes pro bono work is not a viable solution to the fundamental problems within the Canadian legal system; for example, many colleagues in criminal law, housing law and family law already do free legal work for their clients. However, from my perspective as a young, racialized lawyer, I want to explain to the chief justice that his support for mandatory pro bono actually hurts racialized and community lawyers like me.

I grew up in Downsview, a community near Jane Street and Finch Avenue west in Toronto. This northwest area of Toronto is filled with low-income families and immigrants like my Salvadoran parents. Both Downsview and the Jane and Finch community have a strong Latino, Caribbean, Ghanaian and Filipino presence. I loved growing up near Jane and Finch.

I would spend my summers at the nearby mall and playing soccer. However, despite the beautiful diversity, I was exposed to the legal problems of poor and racialized Canadians. From landlord disputes to shady employers, I was driven to pursue a career in law to address these legal problems for my community.

But this dream to be a community lawyer isn’t cheap. Like many lawyers from low-income backgrounds, I had to finance my law school with a $100,000 line of credit from a national bank. A report from the Law Students’ Society of Ontario titled Just or Bust highlighted the financial burden many law students feel when pursuing their law degree.

The irony of my law school story is that I am no longer in a financial position to help the very community that inspired me to enter law.

In the interview with The Lawyer’s Daily, Chief Justice Wagner mentions he wants to “better communicate with the citizens.”

Chief Justice Wagner adds, “Why? To make sure that they keep faith in our system — I truly believe in that.”

I agree with the chief justice that we must work towards keeping confidence in our court system for Canadians. But mandatory pro bono work counters that argument because many community-based, legal ambassadors like myself can’t work for free.

Young, racialized lawyers like myself are in a unique position to improve the way Canadians see the judiciary. We understand our communities; we speak their languages and we are able to sit down with them and talk about the legal system. Yet we can’t because we have a $100k line of credit to pay down.

I agree with Chief Justice Wagner that law societies should play a more proactive role, but rather than asking, “What must law societies add?” We must ask, “What must law societies reduce?”

While tuition is mainly the responsibility of the province, high licensing and lawyer fees for articling students and sole practitioners are within the realm of law societies.

I encourage Chief Justice Wagner to continue with his goal of a more open and accessible Supreme Court of Canada. But I ask the chief justice to look beyond mandatory pro bono as a solution to the access to justice problem. His voice carries weight and influence thus instead of creating a new barrier, my hope is that the new chief justice challenges the financial barriers that racialized and community lawyers face in our aspirations to make a more equitable legal system for poor and racialized Canadians.

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