May 24, 2023

Student Legal Assistance helps low-income Calgarians face the court system

Not-for-profit gives clients legal representation while offering law students valuable experience
Wen Zhao
Wen Zhao

Going to court without legal representation could lead to heightened nerves, confusion, unwise decisions and sometimes less-than-ideal outcomes. 

Many low-income Calgarians go unrepresented because they are unable to afford a lawyer. 

However, the Student Legal Assistance (SLA) clinic allows low-income clients to receive the representation they need while giving University of Calgary law students valuable real-world experience in delivering legal services.

Susan Billington

Susan Billington.

SLA helps more than 600 low-income clients yearly through its clinic, and around 100 law student caseworkers volunteer there throughout the year. Clients are charged a nominal $50 administrative fee for legal information and representation before the Alberta Court of Justice and some administrative tribunals. To be eligible, low-income fee-eligibility guidelines apply. For UCalgary undergraduate students, the fee is waived and services within SLA’s scope are offered free of charge. 

SLA can help with many legal issues, from landlord-tenant matters to traffic tickets — as well as many legal matters before the Alberta Court of Justice, including civil, family law, and criminal charges except those involving jail time. The law-student volunteers inspire SLA executive director Susan Billington to be a part of the program. 

“Every year, we have an amazing group of students who volunteer and come forward to provide access to justice to low-income Calgarians, and they do so while completing their law school studies. It’s truly remarkable to see the skill development over their three years of law school,” says Billington, KC, BA’82, LLB’85.

“For me, certainly, it is the pro bono ethic of providing those low-income clients who need legal services and who SLA can help; of course, that motivates everything we do, but for me it truly is seeing the remarkable development and dedication that our students have to providing access to justice for those who otherwise would be without representation.”

The legal system sometimes lacks accessibility; however, SLA helps bridge that gap, says student director Wen Zhao, who just finished his second year of law school. 

“People’s normal perception of the legal system is sometimes very different from how it works,” Zhao says. “Sometimes, people don’t know their rights and responsibilities, they don’t know how proceedings work, and it’s a very stressful situation. Even if it’s just a traffic ticket, it could become very stressful and, you can imagine, if it’s a criminal charge or a family court matter, it can be even more stressful if you don’t know the process and what is going on. 

“Our goal is to help them … Sometimes, they don’t know they can seek representation, and so we represent low-income clients who qualify for SLA services ... [We] provide legal information regarding their rights and responsibilities, to make sure they know how to proceed, and to really just take off the stress from their situation a little bit.” 

Law students can represent clients through the rules of the Law Society of Alberta that permit student agent caseworkers (under the supervision of advising lawyers) to provide legal information and representation in the Alberta Court of Justice and at certain administrative tribunals. Student caseworkers are not able to appear on matters in the Court of King’s Bench or Court of Appeal. 

Student Legal Assistance is funded through the Alberta Law Foundation, UCalgary Student’s Union, Canada Summer Jobs, and by generous law-firm and lawyer donors. 

For more information about SLA and its scope of practice, visit the website or call 403.220.6637.