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By Tim Haggstrom, University of Saskatchewan law student
The National Canadian Lawyers’ Initiative (NLCI) was founded in April 2020 in response to COVID-19 closures and disruptions. It has now transformed into a Canada-wide access to justice initiative involving lawyers and law students from across the country. I found out about NCLI in May through a family connection and became involved as a Student Ambassador and technology consultant. As a current University of Saskatchewan law student, I am excited not only about the access to justice gap that NCLI is filling, but also the way technology is enabling mobilization and connection across the country, and the development opportunities NCLI brings to my law school classmates.
There is absolutely an access to justice need in Saskatchewan, which includes the communities and individuals living in rural regions. At stake are the lives and livelihoods of small business owners, freelancers, trade workers, farmers, artists, and professionals with issues related to contracts, leases, family law, loans, employment rights, and more. While there are several outstanding pro bono initiatives in Saskatchewan, the demand of those that need legal assistance but cannot afford a lawyer still outweighs the supply. This number will continue to grow as the pandemic continues.
A personal interest of mine is technology and how it could change the field of law. I am energized by the way NCLI has responded to a national need with a focus on technology. With their model, anyone with an internet connection can access or provide pro bono legal assistance. To paraphrase Alex Don, NCLI President, the initiative is a great example of using today’s technology to solve today’s problems. It has been encouraging to watch lawyers across the country step up as mentors to be matched with student volunteers and work with pro bono clients, all through remote channels.
Today, over 150 students across Canada are working internally with the NCLI or have been paired with lawyers and projects. There are currently 12 University of Saskatchewan law students involved with NCLI and a handful more waiting to be matched with a lawyer mentor. I am proud to see my classmates, many of whom have had their summer plans fall through because of the pandemic, putting their dedication and talents towards this cause. While they are helping with access to justice needs, they are also developing their legal skills and knowledge thanks to the generosity of the lawyer mentors they are matched with.
One such student is Mark Berlin, a classmate at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law. Mark signed up as a student volunteer through NCLI’s website because of his passion for access to justice and has since been assigned a research question on the topic of trademark law. Mark is matched with a lawyer mentor and works with other students from across the country and from a variety of educational and professional backgrounds. Mark mentioned, “Everybody is good to work with. We have been able to enhance our experience and learning by doing legal research.”
The impact and reach of NCLI have undoubtedly been outstanding, but there is still more work to do. There are currently dozens of people in Saskatchewan that need legal assistance. For lawyers interested in providing legal assistance or mentorship to students, I highly encourage you to visit https://natcanlaw.com/#take-action to find out more.