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First-year law students learn about problems many people encounter with access to justice

Access to Justice Workshop a learning opportunity for law students

December 8, 2017 — 

Students in the Faculty of Law at the University of Manitoba took a break from their fall term studies for a first-hand look at one of the biggest challenges they will face in practice: access to justice.

This October, over 100 first year law students took part in the Poverty Awareness and Community Action workshop as part of their Legal Systems course requirements. Centered around a three-hour role-playing exercise, the workshop is offered by Community Service-Learning at the university with the help of volunteers from the community.

Each student is assigned a different character with all the characters representing different struggles and barriers faced by many Winnipeggers on a daily basis. Through a focus on issues like financial hardship and racism, the workshop shows how many families do not have the means to deal with costly legal issues they face.  

Law Students role play to learn about problems many people encounter getting access to justice

Law Students role play to learn about problems many people encounter getting access to justice

Workshop assistant and University of Manitoba graduate student Juliana Coughlin says the workshop is valuable because it allows students not only to experience the implications of poverty but learn what they can do about it.

“It’s important for law students to learn about these issues because they will be on the frontlines providing critical services for individuals and families,” she says. “Navigating the justice system in this country can be difficult, time consuming and expensive.”

Fellow organizer Anny Chen, a Community Service-Learning Coordinator at the University of Manitoba, says the workshop also includes an opportunity for students to interact and learn from the community volunteers, some of whom have been on financial assistance themselves.

“The felt experience of the role play – physically moving around and emotionally engaging in the story – helps develop empathy and understanding in a way that’s hard to accomplish only through lectures or reading.”

Afterwards, students were asked to reflect on the workshop in a question and answer session and a brief essay. Professor Shauna Labman who teaches the Legal Systems course and has built the workshop into the course curriculum for the past two years, says students need to understand the law they are learning in the context of societal realities.

“The workshop changes how they read cases and think about their future work,” she says.  “It is a powerful first engagement with access to justice conversations that will continue throughout their degrees.”

Law student Matt Deleau remembers the words of one community volunteer who spoke about the struggles he faced with poverty, homelessness and incarceration. The volunteer shared words of advice for young lawyers.

“I recall him saying something along the lines of ‘tell your clients the truth, do not mislead them.’ This struck a chord with me.”

Fellow student Ramanpreet Dhaliwal says the workshop showed how many people in our community struggle with things we too often take for granted.

Students encountered problem scenarios similar to those legal clients often deal with

Students encountered problem scenarios similar to those legal clients often deal with. Photo by Shauna Labman.

“The event showed me how individuals are not just fighting for basic needs but also their basic rights. In the workshop, individuals were refused access to health, social and legal services, which are their legal rights.”

Chen says the idea is to open the eyes of law students to the issues many of their clients will be facing so they can be part of a solution.

“The legal system is not always just. Law students have a responsibility to learn how privilege and oppression impact people’s access to justice.”

Inspired by the poverty simulation offered by the United Way of Winnipeg, Living on the Edge, Chen says Community Service-Learning purchased the workshop kit from Missouri Association for Community Action and worked with local community organizations to develop a Winnipeg version for university students. Community Service-Learning has staged the workshop at both the Bannatyne and Fort Garry campuses. Chen says they are working with the Faculty of Law to hopefully develop a more tailored workshop in the future.

For more information on the workshop, visit the University of Manitoba’s Poverty Awareness & Community Action Workshop website.

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