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Community Legal Aid will no longer represent anyone accused of domestic violence — as long as that person is a man.
If it’s a woman facing the same accusation, the organization will try to find her a sympathetic lawyer who will work for free, or take on the case themselves.
The recent policy change by the student legal aid clinic — which is run by the University of Windsor’s law school — has stunned and outraged local defence lawyers.
“We’re very alarmed about this,” said Frank Miller, who heads the Windsor chapter of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association.
According to Miller, the policy flies in the face of some of the basic tenets of the justice system: presumption of innocence and the right to legal representation.
“The university prides itself on access-to-justice issues, and yet they’re acting in this manner,” Miller said Tuesday.
He described the policy as “generously giving assistance to women in that situation, and denying it to men.”
Asked if he feels there’s a political agenda behind the policy, Miller replied: “I can only speculate. It speaks for itself, I suppose, when one reads what they’ve decided to do.”
Miller said local members of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association plan on meeting Friday to discuss the issue further. “We want to find out what’s driving this.”
Meant to give law students out-of-classroom experience, Community Legal Aid says it offers legal services to “under serviced and disadvantaged” clients.
The clinic takes criminal cases only when the matter involves summary offences (with no indictments or jury trials) and when there’s no chance of imprisonment.
Nevertheless, defence lawyers have referred clients to Community Legal Aid when those clients can’t afford counsel and don’t qualify for Legal Aid Ontario.
Miller said he and other Windsor lawyers were informed of the shift in the organization’s case selection criteria last week.
An e-mail was distributed explaining the decision.
“There will be no further intakes of domestic violence or peace bond cases unless the alleged offender is a woman,” the message says.
“If the alleged offender is a woman … CLA will attempt to find a defence lawyer familiar with the systemic issues surrounding the charging of women with domestic violence to take the case on a pro bono basis.”
“If it is not possible to find such a lawyer to take the case on a pro bono basis, CLA will take the case.”
Community Legal Aid will also seek to involve a social worker and a law professor, if the accused is female.
The message goes on to say that the clinic will monitor “women offender” cases “to address systemic problems in the way these cases enter and are processed through the formal justice system.”
Lawyer Brian Dube condemned the policy.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” Dube said Tuesday. “I just don’t see how it can be justified in any manner.
“It makes me angry, and it has made a lot of other people angry. That position is inconsistent with the principles at work in the criminal justice system.”
James Yaworsky, a lawyer who acts as review counsel for Community Legal Aid, said he had “little or no part” in the policy change.
“Whether I personally agree with it or not is, I guess, irrelevant. I have to follow orders,” Yaworsky said.
Asked where the decision originated, Yaworsky replied that it came from Camille Cameron, the university’s dean of law.
“She put together a committee to study this thing. I was not a member of that committee. Most of the people on the committee have no actual, direct experience of our operations here.”
Yaworsky said there also didn’t seem to be any consultation with judges, the Crown attorney’s office, the defence bar or Legal Aid Ontario.
“How this is going to play out, I have no idea,” Yaworsky added.
“I have been at this clinic since 1986. This is the first time something like this has been decided (in this way). I would say it’s not common.”
But Cameron said Tuesday Yaworsky was present at the meetings where the policy was discussed.
According to Cameron, months of research and deliberation went into the decision, including consultation with experts and people in the field.
“I’d be more than happy to meet with anyone who wants to discuss this,” Cameron added.
Cameron pointed out that there are other student legal clinics at law schools across the country that don’t take on domestic violence cases.
She said one of the main reasons for the policy change is the committee determined that law students don’t have the specialized training necessary to deal with such cases.
Cameron noted there are many clients that Community Legal Aid can’t help, and the organization can’t be expected to address all the unmet legal needs of the community.
“We are talking about a student legal aid clinic at a university. We’re not talking about a private law firm, or even a legal aid office,” she said.
David Tanovich, a law professor at the university, was part of the committee behind the policy decision.
Asked why the policy treats women differently than men, Tanovich said there are “systemic issues” in the justice system.
“For example, the woman calls 911, saying ‘My partner has assaulted me.’ The police arrive, and they make credibility assessments that are biased, and they end up charging the woman — not the man.
“That’s a social justice issue that the clinic wants to investigate,” Tanovich said. “We’re a social justice law school. We have a social justice mandate.”
Asked if a “social justice mandate” could be considered a political agenda, Tanovich said: “I guess it depends on what you mean by a political agenda… Violence against women is not a political matter. It’s a reality.”
Below: Frank Miller discusses the policy change
The Windsor Star
Windsor Lawyer On Legal Aid