Enhancing Access to Justice for Seniors: A Student Perspective

  • November 30, 2023
  • Logan Dillon, caseworker with the Queen’s Elder Law Clinic

Access to justice is a central value of the Canadian justice system, and law students across the country are increasingly responsible for enhancing it at student-led law clinics. The Queen’s Elder Law Clinic (QELC) is one of many such student-caseworker-based legal clinics in South Eastern Ontario, operating as an integrated academic work placement and two-semester credit course with the Queen’s Faculty of Law. Student caseworkers with the QELC conduct their work under the review of their directors and review counsels. As a team, they provide free legal services to seniors who would otherwise have difficulty affording legal counsel. The most common work done by student caseworkers at the QELC is the drafting of wills and powers of attorney for personal care and property (“POAs”) respectively, however, they can assist clients on other matters that might arise. Importantly, the QELC does not represent clients in court, and does not conduct any form of litigation or dispute resolution. Due to the nature of the pro-bono services provided, many of the clinic’s clients face varying challenges in access to justice.

At the offset, QELC clients, being seniors with difficulty affording legal counsel, virtually all face an access-to-justice challenge in acquiring legal services to begin with. This can be an incredibly stressful situation to be in for anyone who is nearing a period in life that raises questions of end-of-life planning, personal care plans, and the drafting of a last will and testament. Most Canadians rely on legal services in order to acquire a will and POAs as a means to plan ahead before potential health and life challenges even arise. Free legal service is a crucial step in dismantling this particular access-to-justice hurdle for seniors but is not the only hurdle to overcome.

Diminished capacity is a common barrier preventing clients from being able to execute documents. Achieving access to justice for QELC clients means taking a responsible and flexible approach that works for the clients with diminished capacity. This includes communication approaches that seek to minimize the impacts of mental fatigue resulting from the client’s ailments, where and when they arise. A recent example of this approach relates to a client who underwent multiple major surgeries and is in the process of rehabilitation in a long-term care facility (“LTCF”). This client, having the knowledge that end-of-life planning is now time sensitive, contacted the clinic through their assigned social worker. This client’s personal difficulty in accessing legal services is grounded in her physical restrictions – being unable to leave her bed at the LTCF. This is a common occurrence for QELC clients. Not only do such clients require pro-bono legal services, but also a service provider who could operate remotely or off-site.