My Realistic RevolutionNSRLP
As I enter my final year of legal education, I catch myself reminiscing about the student who entered 3 years ago and the lawyer I hope to be when I graduate from Windsor Law at the end of this year.
When I first planned to attend law school, my idealistic application included optimistic sentiments such as my desire to “revolutionize the legal system.” With these type of ideas packed into my knapsack next to my freshly sharpened pencils, I was ready to embark on my law school journey.
At that point, if you had asked me which Canadian demographic requires the most help when it comes to legal services, I would have told you it is obviously those below the poverty line, on welfare, the homeless – essentially, the stereotypical “poor” people.
However, as I sat in my social justice courses during my first year of legal education, I began to learn not only are there significantly more problems with the legal system than I had realized, but there are even fewer practical solutions than I would expect. Specifically, a common theme in the curriculum was the treatment of self-represented litigants (“SRLs”) in Canada – a term I had never even heard before entering law school.
In class, we learned about many social justice issues that deserve attention. However, there was something uniquely bothersome to me about the issues facing SRLs. Although I correctly understood that the “poor” in Canada were unable to afford legal costs, they were not the only demographic struggling to navigate the legal system. Many who are considered to be middle-income earners were also struggling as they could not pay indefinitely for their lawyers’ services. To me, this was both shocking and ridiculous. How does law inspire change if the majority cannot afford to use it?
I received an excellent education on all the problems an individual who self-represents will face. Further, my classmates and I had some really productive conversations about potential solutions to the problems; more educational programs, transforming the legal system to reflect the healthcare system, etc. That being said, I continued to feel frustrated. It was interesting to learn, but talk is cheap and I wanted action.
I learned about the NSRLP through their former research assistant, and here I suddenly began to witness the practical change that I strived for since I first applied to law school. I became acquainted with the amazing work that Dr. Julie Macfarlane, Project Manager Sue Rice, and the entire NSRLP team do on a daily basis for self-represented litigants.
Once I was hired as a research assistant at NSRLP, I gained more first-hand knowledge than any classroom could have taught me. I was able to speak with SRLs, shatter my own stereotypes and learn the root problems within the legal system that prevent SRLs from succeeding.
This summer, I worked in a corporate law firm in downtown Toronto. I was impressed that my firm was highly committed to pro bono work and they maintained a positive approach to working on files where there was a SRL on the other side. However, walking down the streets of the financial district or eating lunch downtown, it was a common occurrence to hear about an “unrelenting SRL” being discussed in a negative tone.
The truth of the matter is that the majority of lawyers who look down on SRLs would not be able to afford their own legal services. However, the stereotypes are still pervasive, which lead to SRLs being viewed as “the problem” and not “the reality.”
I am now standing on the doorstep of the legal profession. It is my goal to keep the lessons and values that I have developed from my time working as a research assistant for the NSRLP throughout my legal career, wherever that may take me. Even if I can influence one person to view SRLs from a new, more positive perspective, that would be the fulfilling change that I desire, as this is a realistic and practical change that I can make in the world. It might not be the global revolution that I had originally envisioned, but I now know that the small changes can feel just as powerful.