Donna Franey works for Dalhousie Legal Aid Service in an unassuming grey-stone building on the corner of Gottingen and Cunard. On weekdays, clients wait to see one of the five full-time staff lawyers, one of the two community legal workers, or one of the dozen or more third-year Dal law school students who work there for course credits. “It’s a busy place,” says Franey, who was a staff lawyer here from 1990 to 1995 before becoming executive director.
Last year, the Clinic (as the organization is commonly known), opened 319 new client files and seven new community files covering such areas of the law as administrative, youth criminal, adult criminal, and child and family services.
The community-based legal-service office has run since 1970, when it began as a summer project of five Dal law students based at the Halifax Neighbourhood Centre. (It’s been in its current location since 1998). At the time, it was the first legal service for poor people in Nova Scotia. Today it’s the only community law clinic in the province and the oldest clinical law program in Canada.
The Clinic is a unique partnership of community groups, law students, community legal workers, and lawyers. It provides community outreach, education, lobbying, and test-case litigation to fight for people with low incomes in Nova Scotia. It also offers advocacy workshops and legal information sessions, and it works with other groups to lobby the government on social assistance policy and other policies negatively affecting those with low incomes.
Sometimes the Clinic is the last resort for people who have been passed around from lawyer to lawyer and who need the most help; many have mental health issues and have lost their jobs, their families, and their homes.
“When we meet them, they often say that they’ve been everywhere in the legal system, so they’re understandably frustrated,” says Franey. Most clients live in the Halifax area, and they can come from all walks of life.
Nova Scotia Legal Aid (NSLA) offices refer the Clinic’s family and criminal law clients. Charlene Moore is a senior staff lawyer with NSLA’s Halifax North office. “To me, DLAS is the epitome of the neighbourhood legal clinic,” she says. “It’s part of the local community and easily accessible to many people in the area. In addition, the legal staff and community workers provide outreach legal services in HRM, reaching out to communities for whom transportation may be an issue.”
Moore considers Franey to be a generous colleague. “She often takes on challenging and difficult cases to advance the legal rights of low-income Nova Scotians, particularly in the areas of income and housing security,” she says.
In the fall and winter, up to 16 law school students can be representing as many as 10 clients at the Clinic under the supervision of the professional staff, and they also do assigned community work. In the summer, some 12 students work there.
“The students are highly supervised and learn by doing,” says Franey. For an upcoming trial, for example, a student will review the case file, draft questions for examination of witnesses, and then stand up and ask them in court. “They’re nervous the first time they speak in court,” says Franey. “We see them really grow their knowledge and confidence while they’re here.”
Franey is proud of the many projects the Clinic has created, such as Legal Links, where staff and students conduct half-hour meetings with potential clients in community-based family-resource centres. “It’s easier for us to visit the places that people go to every day than for some people to get to our office,” says Franey. “We could be the poster child for access to justice in HRM and the province.”
Then there’s LEAP (Legal Education for Advocates Project), where in 2013 and 2014 Clinic staff travelled throughout Nova Scotia teaching lay advocates about the law and about effective ways to help low-income residents who face legal problems. (They still give presentations to a variety of groups around Halifax using materials developed for the project.)
Helping people in need is the Clinic’s top priority. Franey recalls a client she had represented in a child-protection case in 1993 who was in an abusive relationship and had to forge a new path for herself after she left her spouse. With Franey’s encouragement, she enrolled in a training program and got a job. “I went to her graduation and sat next to her father,” says Franey. “She dropped in years later to say hi and let us know that she was doing well. She’s one of many success stories. Clients are so grateful when we can help them turn their lives around. It makes me feel great.”
At 55, Franey, who is from Aylesford in the Annapolis Valley, has been with the Clinic for 26 years and is also a faculty member at Dalhousie’s law school. She earned a BA in political science from Saint Mary’s University in 1982 and a law degree at Dal in 1986.
There were no lawyers in Franey’s family in whose footsteps she would follow; all she knew for sure was that she wanted to be in a “helping” profession, either education or law. Ultimately, she chose law because she wanted to stay in Halifax. While in law school, her plan was to practice corporate commercial law. “I did well in those courses without really trying,” she says, “so I thought, maybe this is my path.”
Franey is pleased that her original plan didn’t pan out and doesn’t like to think about retiring from the Clinic.
“I think it will be difficult when the time comes,” she says. “I’ll miss interacting with the clients, the students, and the staff, who are amazing. This job is a lot of work, but it’s an exciting place, because we have new students every four months and the energy they bring. The variety of cases is also interesting. I feel privileged to work here— there are so many compelling stories of resilience and positive outlooks. The biggest thing we’re here for is to help folks.”
Need legal help?
The Dalhousie Legal Aid Service helps clients with a variety of issues, and offers a downloadable Tenant Rights Guide and Welfare Rights Guide. Visit the Clinic at 2209 Gottingen Street or phone 902-423-8105.