What does a tenant evicted without notice in Vancouver and Somali refugee in South Africa have in common? In their most desperate time, they both turn to a community legal organization for help.
I am Laura Faryna and last year I worked for the South African organization Lawyers for Human Rights.
But before going abroad, I got my first experience in social justice when I worked for the Community Legal Assistance Society (CLAS) in Vancouver. It was 2012 and I was a second year law student from University of Victoria. It was my first foray in clinic law practice and handling a caseload. The CLAS team taught me the fundamentals of clinic practice and how it differs from other types of legal practice. Because of this experience, I was able to hit-the-ground running in several other Canadian clinic positions.
With my work in South Africa, I supported the refugee clinic and the Strategic Litigation Unit (which Canadians might refer to as test case litigation). I was given this opportunity by the Canadian Bar Association’s Young Lawyers International Program, funded by Global Affairs Canada.
At Lawyers for Human Rights, I advocated for refugee and asylum seekers in the refugee claim process and assisted them with challenging negative decisions. Many people I saw had fled devastating conflict zones only to enter a refugee determination system that was fraught with willful ignorance of procedural fairness. I worked with South African social justice lawyers to advocate for clients’ rights in constitutional law, administrative law, healthcare, and education. Luckily for me, South African legal principles share many similarities with Canadian law concepts.
As with CLAS, the clinics in South Africa play a pivotal role in challenging decisions through administrative law. For the average person, judicial reviews are jargon-filled and counter-intuitive. The average client is more concerned about keeping a roof over their head than whether their argument falls under principles of law. Moreover, for most of my clients, suggesting the option of hiring a private lawyer is a merely a formality and far beyond anything they could ever afford. So when judicial review becomes necessary, just as in Canada, South African legal clinics are often a client’s last resource. Legal clinics refuse to treat those with less money, status, or English skills and as inferior in the eyes of the law. Legal clinics refuse to allow complex, erudite procedures prevent their clients from accessing their right to challenge unfair decision making. Unfortunately, the people most in need are often unable to access the protection of the law.
This experience has reminded that the need for legal assistance and fight for social justice is the same, across the globe. Whether you are in Canada or South Africa, we need a legal system that represents everyone and works for everyone. Organizations that represent people who would otherwise be voiceless and nameless need to exist, in every country.