Several times a month lawyer Min Jin provides confidential pro bono legal guidance and advice through video and teleconference. She’s in Toronto but the women she helps are often in small, rural, or remote communities in the province.

Min, a Barrister & Solicitor at Vayalilkollattu Law, is one of several lawyers who has partnered with Luke’s Place Virtual Legal Clinic to provide free legal advice to women who have experienced domestic violence and are involved with the family law system. Located in Oshawa, Luke’s Place is a support and resource centre for women and their children who have experienced abuse.

Family court is often not an easy or safe process for women who leave an abusive partner. Increasing numbers of such women find themselves in court with little or no legal representation, and their situation can become even more dire.

“This is an extremely vulnerable group of women. And, in a province that is as huge as Ontario, geography also creates vulnerability,” says Pamela Cross, Legal Director at Luke’s Place. “That’s how the idea for the Virtual Legal Clinic came to be. Now, if a woman in say, Rainy River, needs to talk to a lawyer, she can do that through us.”

“For women in rural or remote communities, their resources are limited. For so many women it’s simply not possible to go online, find a family lawyer, and drop in for a consultation,” says Min. “Even in communities where there are a few family lawyers, an abusive spouse may set up consultations with all of them to make sure the woman cannot then go see any of those lawyers because of the conflict of interest created. With the Virtual Clinic, I can walk women who live anywhere in the province through the process so they’re prepared when they go to court.”

As part of this program, Luke’s Place provides extensive training to both the pro bono lawyers and staff at women-serving organizations. The frontline workers at the community organizations learn to provide help such as safety planning, legal information about family law issues, and support with evidence collection and documentation. And, it is these workers who connect clients to Luke’s Place and the Virtual Legal Clinic lawyers.

“The program makes legal advice much more accessible because we can bring the advice directly to the women we work with,” says Mellissa Hall, a Family Court Support Worker at Hoshizaki House in Dryden, a crisis shelter for women and their children fleeing abuse. Mellissa has taken part in about 20 sessions with different clients.

One such client who had experienced domestic violence was subject to a court order that both parents have joint decision-making and week-on-week-off parenting time. This resulted in a high conflict co-parenting relationship. When Mellissa’s client had difficulty getting her ex-partner to agree to services for their child, she decided she needed to take legal action. Mellissa suggested she consult with a Virtual Legal Clinic lawyer. She was able to gain guidance on how to proceed and how to effectively represent herself. She then went on to successfully argue her case.

The Law Foundation of Ontario has provided over $1.5M in eight project grants to Luke’s Place since 2008, and in 2018 Luke’s Place was one of 20 organizations approved for the Foundation’s new, multi-year core funding Catalyst program. With the Catalyst funding, Luke’s Place will further expand its Virtual Legal Clinic into Southwestern Ontario in 2019 and to the rest of the province in 2020. Until now, it was available only to women in Northeastern and Northwestern Ontario.

The goal of the Foundation’s Catalyst program is to strengthen the nonprofit justice sector by helping to give organizations stability and the opportunity to innovate, evolve, and respond to emerging needs. At just over $5.8M per year, the inaugural Catalyst granting represents a planned investment of more than $17M over the three-year granting cycle into Ontario’s nonprofit justice sector.

“The willingness of the Law Foundation to think in creative ways has been critically important in the work we have been able to do in increasing justice for vulnerable populations,” says Pamela. “The Catalyst grant means we can continue to expand something that started as a pilot project. Our hope is that we can one day turn the Virtual Legal Clinic into one of the regular family court support programs we offer women who have been subject to abuse.”

Please note: In response to the increased need for women to access summary legal advice during COVID-19, Luke’s Place has expanded its Virtual Legal Clinic so it is available to women anywhere in Ontario, even if they are not living in a shelter. For more information: https://lukesplace.ca/for-women/lukes-place-virtual-legal-clinic/

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