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Students improving family law services

The Queen’s Family Law Clinic opened its doors just a few short months ago, but it’s already having a positive impact on local residents self-representing in Family Court.

[Brittany Chaput]
The new Queen's Family Law Clinic is providing students like Brittany Chaput (Law'15) with valuable experiential learning opportunities. 

“The level of appreciation clients have for our work, and the significant demand for assistance have both been surprising to me,” says Brittany Chaput (Law’15), one of eight Queen’s law students working in the clinic with an additional six law students joining the program as volunteers in the coming weeks. “It is clear to me that our assistance has allowed our clients to become more confident in their abilities as self-representing advocates and has helped to provide clarity in an otherwise bewildering process.”

Queen’s Law launched the Family Law Clinic in September with funding from Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) and additional support from Pro Bono Students Canada and the Law’81 Alumni Fund. The clinic supports LAO’s commitment to enhancing much-needed family law services for low-income Ontarians.

In the heart of the city
Queen’s Family Law Clinic is co-located on the fifth floor of the LaSalle Mews Building (303 Bagot St.) in downtown Kingston along with the other Queen’s law clinics: Queen’s Legal Aid, Prison Law Clinic, Business Law Clinic and Elder Law Clinic.

The Queen’s Family Law Clinic assists an increasing number of litigants who can’t afford a lawyer but are above the income cut-off line for a legal aid certificate. The clinic also supports people who qualify for financial assistance with a legal matter not covered by Legal Aid Ontario.

Karla McGrath (LLM’13) serves as the director of Queen’s Family Law Clinic. She notes that self-representing litigants lack legal experience, which puts pressure on the judicial community.

“Litigants who prepare their own documents might not properly ask for what they want or when they appear in court they ask for something that is different than what they asked for in their court documents. This can be frustrating for them as well as for judges, clerks and administrative staff,” she says. “We’re minimizing that frustration and working to ensure the documents are thorough and accurately reflect what the clients are seeking from the process.”

In addition to preparing court documents and letters of opinion, Queen’s Family Law Clinic students guide their clients through the various steps of the court process. Even though they can’t represent clients in court, the students attend Family Court and shadow private bar or Legal Aid Ontario staff lawyers who assist self-representing litigants. The students also take a class relating to their clinic work and visit local agencies to inform professionals and clients about the services their clinic provides.

Ms. Chaput anticipates that participating in the hands-on learning experience offered by the clinic will ultimately make her a substantially better advocate.

“I have gained confidence in my ability to work with clients in difficult situations, identify the issues in a matter, and effectively communicate the facts,” she says. “I have become significantly more familiar with court procedures and court dynamics. Further, I have developed an insight into the practice of family law and considered the issue of policy reform in this area.”