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Experienced clinic lawyer takes the helm at Queen’s Legal Aid

[Blair Crew]
Blair Crew has been appointed as director of Queen’s Legal Aid (QLA). He takes up his new position on Monday, Jan.7. (University Communications)

Blair Crew brings a wealth of experience in clinical education to his new role as director of Queen’s Legal Aid (QLA). As review counsel at the University of Ottawa Community Legal Clinic (Faculty of Common Law) since 2005, he has been responsible for all aspects of supervising student caseworkers in cases brought before various courts and review boards. As a sessional professor at Ottawa’s Faculty of Common Law for the past 15 years, he has taught Sexual Assault Law, Criminal Law and Procedure, and the Law of Evidence. Since 2016, he has served as a panelist on the Government of Ontario’s pilot program that provides independent legal advice for survivors of sexual assault. He holds an LLM from Cornell University (2005), an LLB (Magna Cum Laude) from the University of Ottawa (1998) and an Honours BA from the University of Toronto. 

Before assuming the directorship of QLA on Jan. 7, Blair Crew spoke to Queen’s Law Reports about his motivation for delivering pro bono legal services, his previous experience as a clinic supervisor, and his plans for leading the largest of the school’s five clinics. 

What interests you most about providing legal services to low-income people?

Economics provides one of the most significant barriers to access to justice in Canada’s legal system. Courts of every level, including members of the Supreme Court of Canada, have recognized that the cost of legal services in Canada has now gone beyond what is affordable even for people who have a moderate level of income. People of low income often face discrimination and an inability to access legal services based on factors such as race, gender identity, or disability, including mental health challenges or addictions. 

I feel that is a real privilege to be able to use a legal education to address these barriers to access to justice. When billable hours are not a concern, the students and I are free to explore every avenue, and to put in as much work on a case as is required to achieve a fair legal result, without being bound by the limitations imposed by what a client can afford.  

How have you previously supervised clinical program students?

For more than 13 years, I was review counsel at the University of Ottawa Community Legal Aid Clinic, the equivalent of QLA. While I was primarily responsible for the clinic’s Criminal Division, I also have extensive experience before the Landlord and Tenant Board and Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. 

My approach to supervision begins with the notion that I should be directly accessible to the students. Most of my weekly schedule is reserved for direct consultation with students. I strongly believe in letting students take the lead in developing both a legal strategy to resolve a client’s legal problem, and a plan for effective communication with the clients about that strategy. 

It has been my personal practice to attend at courts or tribunals when a student has an actual hearing or trial: clients almost universally require direct and immediate legal advice from a lawyer in the last minutes before a trial or hearing begins. That said, I have learned that I can  “sit on my hands” as an observer when I am present at a trial, as a student who is well prepared can think their way through almost any situation that arises. By being present, I am able to provide meaningful feedback on what many students describe as one of the most thrilling experiences of their time at law school.   

What attracted you to Queen’s Legal Aid? 

I am excited about the depth of opportunities for file work that QLA presents to students. Between group leaders, litigation students participating for course credit, and volunteers, QLA provides opportunities for as many as 96 students a year to gain practical, hands-on legal experience. Easily the most attractive aspect for me of working at QLA is the opportunity to act as a mentor for these students.

I am also attracted to the model of having five co-located clinics operating under the umbrella of the Queen’s Law Clinics, and the opportunities for collaboration that this presents. In addition to the added convenience for clients who may require services from more than one of the Queen’s Law Clinics, I am looking forward to the having access to the insight that the staff and students of the other clinics will provide.  

By joining the staff of QLA, I am joining a team of experienced staff with a demonstrated record of being strong role models to students. Part of my role includes mentoring students beyond their time at Queen’s Faculty of Law. It has been fulfilling for me to watch my former students become partners, associates and sole practitioners, particularly in the area of criminal law, at many of Toronto’s and Ottawa’s leading firms. I enjoy being able to use these connections to assist students seeking out articling and early career opportunities.   

What are your plans for the clinic as the QLA director?

QLA has a long-standing tradition of excellence in providing both legal services to the community and hands-on experiential learning opportunities for law students. My first plan is to take some time to learn what it is about QLA that has contributed to this effectiveness and reputation. I also recognize that both methods of delivery of legal services and philosophies of experiential education are always evolving, and that any law practice needs to innovate to stay current.  

Beyond that, I am new to Kingston. I look forward to being able to renew and strengthen connections between QLA and other agencies that are involved in the justice system and/or the provision of services to low-income people, including other clinics funded by Legal Aid Ontario and social services agencies. I find that having people at such like-minded agencies in my cell-phone contacts list always increases the range of options I can present to clients seeking practical solutions to legal issues.