By Ali Abel
When Alberta’s courts closed in the third week of March to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the important work of Student Legal Assistance (SLA) came to a standstill. Physical distancing meant that student caseworkers were unable to meet with their clients, and paper files made working on files remotely nearly impossible.
“When the University of Calgary shut down campus it meant the law student caseworkers were no longer able to access client files, which were all on paper,” says Susan Billington, LLB’85, associate professor and executive director of SLA. “Essentially, all of our work providing access to justice to some of Calgary’s most vulnerable citizens was suspended.”
A non-profit organization staffed primarily by University of Calgary law students, SLA provides free legal information and representation to low-income residents of Calgary and the surrounding area. About 100 student caseworkers work on a variety of files such as impaired driving offences, theft and trespassing, small claims, child support and guardianship, bylaw or traffic offences, and landlord/tenant matters.
After years working solely on paper, clinics makes transition to online files
In June, SLA earned “critical research status.” This enabled SLA staff members to return to the SLA office in Murray Fraser Hall who then worked tirelessly to transition all paper files to an online legal software platform, and to begin serving existing clients again. Student caseworkers have continued to work remotely, but have been able to visit the SLA office in file teams to access hard-copy files, prepare trial books, and liaise with administrative staff on client matters.
“We have daily morning meetings on Zoom, client file team meetings on Teams, and our upper-year students hold daily online sessions to provide guidance and mentorship to our first-year caseworkers,” explains Louanne Moriarty, a third-year student and the clinic’s student director. “We have also been able to connect with our advising lawyers over Zoom, and the screen-sharing option has provided a new way to review critical documents.”