History of Student Legal Services of Edmonton

Student Legal Services of Edmonton was created in 1969 by a group of fourteen University of Alberta law students with the objectives of increasing awareness of legal rights and providing actual legal assistance to the poverty community on Edmonton’s Boyle Street.


Since then, with funding from the Alberta Law Foundation (ALF), the federal and provincial governments, and the University of Alberta Students Union, SLS has opened several offices and engaged in a number of initiatives throughout Edmonton and its environs.

 

Over the past three decades, SLS volunteers have taught and assisted inmates at several correctional institutions, offered “duty counsel” service at rural court houses, published numerous books and pamphlets, advocated for changes to laws that adversely affect the poor, participated on radio and television programs, helped individuals file their income tax returns, provided countless lectures and seminars, and assisted hundreds of thousands of individuals with their specific legal questions and problems. SLS has now evolved into a well-established, familiar part of both the legal and poverty communities in Edmonton, and plays a vital role in familiarizing impoverished people with their legal rights and helping them to exercise those rights. It has also greatly enhanced the educational experience of the thousands of U of A law students that have volunteered their time.

1969 to 1974

1969

Student Legal Services was created in 1969 by a group of fourteen University of Alberta law students who were inspired by the student legal assistance clinics emerging at law schools throughout Canada and the U.S. It officially opened on May 1 of that year at the Boyle Street Community Services Cooperative and the Edmonton Day Center. The objectives of the project were to increase awareness of legal rights, provide actual legal assistance where possible, and to inform the diverse community living on Boyle Street of the resources that were available to them. In the first four months, SLS handled over 100 cases ranging from criminal matters to welfare disputes and tenancy problems. In the meantime, SLS workers were also assisting inmates at the Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre with their Legal Aid applications. By 1970, offices had been set up in the Student’s Union Building (SUB), the Legal Aid office, and the Norwood Readiness Centre.
 

1970

By 1970, SLS had set up offices in the Student’s Union Building at the University of Alberta, the Legal Aid office, Norwood Readiness Centre and in Fort Saskatchewan. Practitioners from the local legal community were recruited to act as volunteer advisors. Divided into teams of three students and one lawyer, the projects would remain open each night at each station despite the complete absence either of funding or administrative facilities. There was an immense response from the practicing Bar. Most major firms had a member involved in the work SLS was doing.
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1971

In 1971, SLS received its first substantial grant - $50 000 from the federal government’s Opportunities For Youth (OFY) program – and moved from simply giving information and assisting volunteer lawyers to actually running trials themselves. A school bus was purchased for $50 and painted in psychedelic colors. Permanently situated in the West-10 parking lot, it became the Jasper Place office. The system of ad hoc volunteer advising lawyers was supplemented by an official advising lawyer – Denny Thomas. Mr. Thomas not only brought the experience that he had working with legal aid clinics in Britain, but he provided an answer to the concerns of the Law Society and practicing Bar about “quality control”.

A day after SLS made its first ever appearance in Small Claims Court, Jim Robb appeared in Highway Traffic Court where he successfully defended his principal against a failure to stop at a red light charge. It was not until SLS argued its first provincial court appearance, a vagrancy charge, that its standing to be in that court was challenged. The issue of whether SLS had a right to participate in the justice system had already been a hot debate. While the legal profession was concerned about competition, the Law Society wondered whether such activity violated the Legal Profession Act. The lawyer that SLS had in place to argue for the status of SLS status in Court was never needed, the judge was convinced that SLS members were authorized to appear in Court by the express provision in the Criminal Code allowing agents to appear for individuals charged with Summary Conviction offences.

In the early summer of 1971, several members continued to work for SLS despite the lack of any funding. Many found themselves being housed and fed by their sympathetic classmates, spending all the money they had on polyester professional attire from Army & Navy. Their driving force was the purpose they found in taking direction from the impoverished. The emerging concept of “community outreach” whereby immovable institutions would go out into the community to contact people in need on their own terms caught hold of SLS. They did not tell the poor what they needed, but listened to them instead. Many of their initiatives were done without any personal recognition. Problems that did not have a legal answer were given a non-legal solution. SLS members set up a competitive alternative to “Tax Discounters”, helping individuals file their own taxes. They also documented the phenomenon whereby food prices would increase when welfare cheques were issued.

There was an ongoing debate over whether the best impact could be made by taking a case-by-case approach or a long-term legal reform approach. In the end, both approaches were adopted, the latter manifesting itself in the Welfare Project headed by Brian Kaliel. In these pre-Charter days, individuals such as welfare recipients were treated extremely poorly, and there was no end to the issues that SLS could confront. SLS members were active in the establishment of the Boyle Street Co-op – assisting in the drafting of the by-laws which eventually led to the federal Department of Health and Welfare financing the Co-op. On the reform front, John Faulkner and Jim Robb spent three days in the Faust / Drift Pile area investigating discriminatory practices involving treaty vs. non-treaty natives. They took their findings to the press, which resulted in changes being made to hunting rights and welfare payments.

Another major internal issue at the time was the preservation of student control. Offers of funding were always viewed in light of the strings that may come with accepting money. As well, a scheme whereby students would receive school credit for SLS casework was rejected because it was seen as a potential loss control of SLS out of the hands of the students. This lack of affiliation with the Faculty of Law was the factor that distinguished SLS from the other student legal clinics that were being established across Canada. At an conference of law student run antipoverty groups put on in Ottawa by Osgoode Hall, SLS members were seen as the radicals.

SLS received its Certificate of Incorporation as a Society under the Society’s Act in 1971.

1972

In 1972, SLS moved out of the Bissell Centre and into the new Boyle Street Co-op.

$10 000 obtained from Health and Welfare Canada went to several publications, including a booklet called “The Welfare Game”, a pamphlet for hitchhikers called the “Blue Book for Travellers” and a pamphlet on welfare rights called the “Rules of the Game”. A part time secretary was also hired. SLS joined forces with Native Outreach in creating a fair employment agency that allowed the worker to retain his or her full wage rather than receiving less than half of the money that employment agencies were recieving. Attempts were also made to unionize native trappers in Fort McMurray.

At the courthouse, SLS workers noticed that a number of individuals were appearing in docket court without lawyers. As a result, SLS workers began visiting the courthouse to inform people of their rights. They also assisted John Faulker (a former SLS chairperson) in drafting a report which was sent to Legal Aid proposing a system of free legal advisors at the courthouse. Duty Counsel would arrive on scene a few years later. SLS also began making appearances before administrative bodies such as Edmonton City Council and the Police Commission. The Student Divorce Program was also started this year, whereby students would help individuals fill out their paperwork and hand it to a lawyer to take to court.

The Faculty of Law took notice of this substantial work. The Dean of the Faculty of Law, who had previously been unsupportive of SLS, now proposed that the faculty take over SLS. Fearing that such a takeover would threaten the very existence of its integral legal reform projects, Jim Robb and others took the matter before the President of the University and succesfully fought to save its independence.

1973

Steering Committee – Dave Finlay (Chair), Brian Burrows, Barbara Romaine, Douglas Lynass, Ron Liteplo, Charles Campbell, Peter Jasper, Jim Brimacombe, Andy Sims

In 1973, SLS workers began visiting a Law class at Victoria Composite High School, hoping that the knowledge gained by the students would filter into the community. That same year, a project to force the City of Edmonton to demolish many condemned houses still standing in the Boyle area had much success. While SLS workers continued to asssist individuals in court (2 866 cases that year), an effort was undertaken to get a Legal Education project off the ground. The first internal training handbook was prepared, as were publications on landlord/tenant matters and sale of goods.

That year, each of the projects confined their activities to the immediate community in which they were located. The Boyle location devoted their attention to Boyle Street residents, West-10 volunteers worked exclusively with West-10 residents. All overflow was handled by the SUB office.

Denny Thomas left SLS in 1973 and was replaced by John Faulkner and Lois Gander. The battle for the right to assist people in court continued, this time the issue was accessibility to Family Court, which was eventually allowed.

1974

Steering Committee – John James (Chair), Beverly Brown, Peter Jasper, Laird Hunter, Terry McCrum, Wendy Kennedy, Doug Thompson and Robert Nowack

In 1974, the newly-formed Alberta Law Foundation (ALF) provided the first of many sizable grants. The SLS budget went from $30 000 to $90 000. This allowed for expansion of the organization and increased interest from law students. Over 30 students were hired on for the summer. The Dickensfield office, a pilot project initiated by John James, opened its doors. John Faulkner was also doing some piloting that year. On a grant from the Alberta Law Foundation, he and James flew a light aircraft throughout Northern Alberta to examine the availability of legal assistance to members of remote communities. Although they had to visually navigate the aircraft by flying at 300 feet and following power lines, the trip was a success and their subsequent report led to increased funding for members of Alberta’s remote communities.

The West-10 project was running mock trials, lectures and educational seminars, and pressuring slum landlords in the Jasper Place community to shut down. That project was also working on the Calder Neighborhood Improvement Project, a group of Calder residents trying to obtain federal funds to improve their community. SLS was also involved in Calder’s successful campaign to defeat a commercial zoning bylaw which residents were opposed to.