The Public Interest Law Clinic and Calgary’s Justice Sector Constellation: Working Towards Strategic, Systems-Level Change
In 2015, through generous community support, the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law established the Public Interest Law Clinic. Like many clinical teaching programs across Canada, JD students at UCalgary’s Faculty of Law earn credit for research, writing, and advocacy that strives for systemic change in public law matters such as public health, human rights, equality, poverty, and
environmental protection in Canada.
Systemic change is multifaceted, stepwise, fundamental, transformative, and generational. What does that mean in practice? Calgary’s Justice Sector Constellation (JSC) has proven to be a powerful model of strategic systems-level thinking on that front. The JSC is a collaborative with a diverse membership including justice-serving agencies, municipal, provincial and federal justice administration, community volunteers, educators, and legal support providers. The Public Interest Law Clinic joined the JSC in 2018 and, as a participating member of the constellation, has learned a great deal from the group’s strategic approach and methodology.
The JSC wants a legal system that does not cause or contribute to poverty. The group pairs its systems-level vision with a focus on the pragmatic. “We didn’t want to be yet another group that issued yet another report saying, ‘access to justice is a problem, and someone should do something about it’, so we decided to do something about it ourselves” states Janice Pasay, a founding community member and Co-Chair. To that end, the JSC conducts ongoing project work through JSC members and interested stakeholders.
In one unsung achievement, the JSC successfully advocated over a six-year period for the integration of three public databases of legal services. Finding the right resource at the right time can change the outcome for people in crisis. An ad hoc approach to information management among public agencies meant the public and frontline service providers trying to help clients with legal issues got differing and sometimes-obsolete information about available services from a patchwork of sources.
Now, anyone in Alberta looking for assistance can turn to the province’s InformAlberta database used by the 211 service available in many areas of the province to get reliable information from a common database of legal, community and social services (see https://www.ab.211.ca/). The JSC also provided directory categories for the legal component of the 211 website. “Looking back, the length of time and the level of commitment it took to bring stakeholders together and keep moving forward to completion was remarkable,” reflects JSC Co-Chair Brenda Ingham.
At the Calgary Emergency Women’s Shelter, the results are tangible. Linette Soldan is the Program Manager of the shelter’s Community Services Counseling Program. “Having clients’ needs met in a timely, supportive and safer manner is vital in their circumstances,” explains Soldan. “Clients and counsellors appreciate the different ways they can access the 211 service, such as by phone, online chat, email and most recently through text. Clients especially expressed the importance of the texting approach.”
Those quiet changes are already improving service delivery, and system-wide efficiency gains accrue year over year as information is updated across the common database. “Although we don’t often think to, we really should stop and rejoice at an achievement like this and the large impact it has on people’s lives. It takes tremendous effort, and this the kind of successful public service improvement is what politicians should get elected for,” adds Dr. Ivan Sierralta, Director of Strategy and Impact at Vibrant Communities Calgary.
For more information about the Public Interest Law Clinic, click here.