After a year of work and preparation for the UCalgary Public Interest Law Clinic, the decision from the Supreme Court of Canada has been announced.
The clinic has been operational since 2015 and second- and third-year students in the Faculty of Law are eligible to take part in the program. Its objective is to give the community a voice in matters of public concern in both law and policy. The program also allows law students to gain valuable experience while allowing faculty to operationalize their research.
In fall 2022, the clinic was approached by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) — which focuses on the impacts of climate change on health — which was hoping to get involved in Supreme Court proceedings regarding the constitutionality of the federal government’s Impact Assessment Act. The clinic agreed to represent CAPE as legal counsel in the Supreme Court proceedings.
The opportunity to work on a Supreme Court case is one many lawyers may never get, so Shaun Fluker, LLM’04, an associate professor at UCalgary Law, says this opportunity was extra-significant for the students.
“The opportunity to participate in a proceeding that's going to be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada is an amazing opportunity for a law student,” he says. “Frankly, it's an amazing opportunity for anyone.
“It's not an opportunity that comes easily in the practice of law. The Supreme Court generally only hears cases that it feels have national significance. And so, it doesn't hear many cases on a year-to-year basis.”
This is the second time the clinic has appeared as legal counsel before the Supreme Court in the last five years.
The court issued its decision in early October, ruling the act is unconstitutional in part, as the court held there was overstepping by the federal government. Fluker says this decision has significance for the future direction of federal environmental policy in Canada.
“We are now in a place of uncertainty where it is not necessarily clear how the federal government should assess (the) trans-boundary impact of major projects in Canada,” he says. “A lot of these big projects — energy projects, in particular — while they are situated in one province, potentially have effects outside of that province.
“Traditionally speaking, the federal government was looked to as the level of government to address those impacts and I would say, at the moment, it is a little bit unclear how the federal government is going to go about doing that.”
Fluker says with this case behind them, students can go forward into their careers in law with some insight into how litigation can impact public policy, with the experience possibly inspiring their future legal focus.
“I know a number of the students that worked on this matter came into the clinic course with an interest in energy and environmental law and regulation which, of course, is one of the things that we focus on here at the Faculty of Law,” says Fluker. “So, there’s two really strong positive outcomes there: being able to work on a case at the highest court in the country, but also it being in an area or subject matter that the students already have an interest in.”
For more information and how to enrol in the clinic, students can check the website.