Legal Assistance of Windsor (LAW) was founded in 1974 as a clinical learning project of the University of Windsor, Faculty of Law. Its goal was to provide an environment in which students could experience issues relating to access to justice in the context of a “storefront clinic” in downtown Windsor by examining the law and legal profession in context, while helping to provide legal services to those who were unable to pay a private lawyer and were unable to obtain a legal aid certificate.
LAW provides a range of legal and social work services to the low-income communities of Windsor and Essex County. It is continuing to make a difference in the community as it serves people who otherwise would be unrepresented. LAW has successfully obtained ODSP or Ontario Works eligibility for clients as well as often maintaining tenancies where people would otherwise be homeless. This is especially true in subsidized housing units.
“LAW has adjusted its services to meet community needs,” explains Brian Rodenhurst, Executive Director of LAW. “For example, we have undertaken some legal work in Refugee and Immigration to meet the needs of the recent influx of Mexican refugees fleeing the United States. We have also done some work with UIC benefits, due to the rising unemployment rates in Windsor. We constantly attempt to be flexible in order to meet the changing needs of the community.”
In addition, LAW offers a full-time academic program where students learn to be competent and ethical problem-solvers, through an extensive orientation, one-on-one file review sessions and semester-long case conferencing program which provides the foundation for the performance of effective skills in casework under the supervision of experienced practitioners. The evaluation criteria are structured to guide student learning within three main areas of concern: Professional Responsibility, Advocacy, and Self-reflection.
In developing the program, it was recognized that the legal problems of the disadvantaged were often interrelated with social problems. Consequently, an interdisciplinary approach to the delivery of services was developed, which combined the expertise of the legal and social work professions to enable law students to work collaboratively in developing an appreciation and understanding of the knowledge, skills and theories of practice of both professions. Many students who participated in LAW went on to find careers in the Social Justice world, including as staff lawyers for Community Clinics around Ontario.
Through an interdisciplinary approach, lawyers and law students, social workers and social work students engage in casework, public legal education, law reform and community development activities in a learning environment. Inherent in this work is a recognition that assisting people to improve their lives or general community conditions may be done not only through case-by-case service, but also through community development activities. Students leave the clinic with the deep appreciation of the true application of the principles of social justice on an individual and community basis.
“My involvement with LAW is rewarding for two main reasons.” says Rodenhurst. “One is to watch the progress of students who learn to effectively deal with clients, and become skilled in conducting hearings, and to observe their increased understanding of the impact of poverty on clients. The second reward is often the simple but sincere thank you from a client who we have helped make their lives a little bit better.”