The Quebec legal system can be quite alienating and difficult to navigate, says Mélanie Arsenault. “That’s why our program is so essential.”
The Director of Community Services at the Legal Information Clinic at McGill says the Court Accompaniment program was launched in 2017 to increase access to justice and support for marginalized groups in their navigation of the justice system.
The free service is available to McGill students and all community members, regardless of income or status. In the program, a team of student volunteers accompany people at Small Claims Court, where in disputes that are lower than $15,000 you must represent yourself, and at the Tribunal administratif du logement – TAL (rental board). “When people can't have a lawyer and you have to self-represent, it can be pretty intimidating and overwhelming given how complex our legal system is,” Arsenault told The Suburban.
The process begins with a call to McGill's Legal Information Clinic.
“You must have a hearing date set for us to accompany you.” After that, a volunteer sets up a preliminary meeting prior to the hearing, either in person or over the phone, to let the client explain their situation. “Because we are law students,” she cautions, “we are limited in what we can offer. The process is mostly procedural: we offer the information and are there for moral support.” For complex questions and issues about law, clients are referred to the legal information branch of the services. People can use both services.
“As for the Court Accompaniment we essentially help them understand what they're allowed to bring with them, how to address the judge, how the proceeding unfolds and to be there offering moral support at the hearing, to be physically present with them.” At Small Claims Court you are allowed allies, but they can not stand up and defend you or speak. “But we meet them at the proceeding and sit with them throughout which can be very comforting giving them that security, that encouragement by virtue of our presence.”
In 2018-2019 there were 13 cases, considered low and attributed to a lack of awareness of the program. During the pandemic it was very quiet as courts were closed and hearings delayed, with many moved online where people found more comfort attending from home, and access to legal zoom sessions were also more restricted. But with courts open again volunteers are back at it accompanying clients to their hearings.
As a third-year law student, Arsenault says if she or anyone had tried to navigate this system without a legal education it would be very difficult. “Montrealers are lucky because there are many community organizations here to provide legal education and support to the community. Our services are very empowering,” she says, “and can have a ripple effect on the community.”
For example, if you're in a TAL case you likely know or have come across others in similar situations, and after your experience you may be able to accompany and advise others. “The goal is to reach as many people as possible,” says Arsenault, “empower them to navigate the system and they won't need us anymore.”
There's no typical client she says, i.e., 20-year-old student facing off against a landlord or other party. “It's actually a bit older,” she says. “Students are not often in court, and when people go to the TAL it's usually as a last resort when the person has ruled out other recourse.”
Within civil procedure one of the priorities is to encourage private dispute resolution, says Arsenault, “such as mediation to keep people out of the courts – where there are already many delays – and help them resolve their own conflicts in a manner that works out best for the relationship between the parties.”
Funded through McGill's tuition fees, the LICM is staffed by “an amazing team of about 50 caseworkers. It's really thanks to them that we're able to offer these services because they're the ones who research legal information for the clients and accompany them.”
To request a court accompaniment, call the clinic at (514) 398-6792. You must have a hearing date set at the TAL or Small Claims Court. For more information visit https://licm.ca