The power of pro bono

- December 7, 2017

Pro Bono Dalhousie student co-ordinators Ashley Hill (left) and Rebekah Hovi. (Provided photo)
Pro Bono Dalhousie student co-ordinators Ashley Hill (left) and Rebekah Hovi. (Provided photo)

When students sign up to volunteer with Pro Bono Dalhousie @ Schulich Law, they’re getting opportunities to develop their lawyering skills by working with legal practitioners and associated organizations on projects that serve their local community.

“We usually have more applications for placements than we can accommodate,” says third-year law student Ashley Hill, one of this year’s Pro Bono student co-ordinators, along with second-year law student Rebekah Hovi.

For the 2017–18 academic year, around 180 students — over one-third of the law school student body — have placements in almost 40 organizations, including the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre, East Coast Prison Justice Society, Dalhousie Legal Aid Service, and Artists’ Legal Information Society.

Some projects are unique — in their nature, scope and impact. The International Transfer Project was one of them. In September of 2016, law school alumnus Mark Knox (LLB ’85), a Halifax criminal, family and civil litigation lawyer, approached the law school after receiving a phone call out of the blue from a Canadian citizen named Derek Twyman, who had been imprisoned in a Greensboro, North Carolina jail since 1989.

As a young man, Twyman had been sentenced to an astounding 160 years for his involvement in several non-violent burglaries in Greensboro, the homes of wealthy country-club families. At 52, Twyman was looking for legal aid to get his sentence commuted to a Canadian prison because he didn’t want to die in an American jail, and he had somehow found his way to Knox.

“Derek had been scratching for help for years in a nice way,” says Knox. “His situation shone a light on the big issue of what Canada should be doing for Canadians who are incarcerated in the United States.”

Opportunity: Knox

Knox has had more than one opportunity to work with Dalhousie pro bono volunteers. Since 2013, their efforts have benefitted the Nova Scotia chapter of 7th Step Society, which helps newly released prisoners or those living in a residential facility or on full parole reintegrate into the community.

“As legal professionals, we don’t have enough time to do everything,” says Knox. “To find enthusiastic young people who contribute to your mission is really important.”

Law students Ryan Bernard and Juliana Pyde were placed on what Knox coined the International Transfer Project. The students wrote advocacy letters asking for help transferring Twyman to a Canadian prison to several Nova Scotia government officials, including Halifax MP Andy Fillmore.

In addition, Pyde and Bernard attended 7th Step meetings so they would understand what integration is and the difficulties prisoners face when they’re released from jail. They also conducted research on the Canadian International Transfer of Offenders Act, which they presented to Knox.

Knox had faculty assistance, too, consulting with Professors Sheila Wildeman and Archie Kaiser. “Many faculty members supply support and supervision for particular projects,” says Prof. Kaiser, who has been advising Pro Bono students since the organization’s inception around 20 years ago. “And successive Deans have always been eager to express their support in various ways, including supplements to our budget.”

Keeping pro bono close to home

Until last year, Dal’s student-run pro bono organization was part of Pro Bono Students Canada; historically, it had the highest number of volunteers among Canadian law schools. In 2016, it became its own entity with a new name. “We determined that an independent, locally funded and administered organization was more consistent with our understanding of the ideals of pro bono service,” says Prof. Kaiser.

Almost all of the funding comes from the Law Foundation of Nova Scotia. The student co-ordinators, who change each year, are paid to work 10 hours a week and also volunteer on projects. “We monitor the projects to make sure they’re meaningful to the students and the community,” says Hovi. The co-ordinators meet frequently with Prof. Kaiser and quarterly with a Community Advisory Committee, which consists of law school alumni, previous co-ordinators, and community stakeholders.

“Pro Bono Dalhousie has always been blessed with enthusiastic and exceptionally capable student co-ordinators,” says Prof. Kaiser. “Their work, and that of the volunteers, is an integral part of the Weldon Tradition of unselfish public service and is further evidence that our students, faculty, and graduates give back to the community.”

The powerful impact of student advocacy

On Nov. 1, Knox was “flabbergasted” to get the news that Twyman, who had been held for four months in a U.S. immigration detention facility, was being granted full release. “That ended the transfer process,” says Knox. “Derek was coming to Canada with no strings attached.”

CBC feature on Twyman: Long time gone

It was the culmination of the pro bono efforts of too many people to list on both sides of the border, including legal professionals, law students, government and corrections officials, social workers, chaplains and ordinary citizens. “The number of phenomenal personalities who have fortuitously come together to help Derek is amazing,” says Knox. “I have to give accolades to the law school.”

A support network has been put in place in Toronto to help Twyman find housing and employment, and to reintegrate into society. The International Transfer Project, which is now officially finished, illustrates the powerful impact of student advocacy.

“It’s not often that you get to see tangible results like these,” says Hill. “There has been so much compassion for Derek. Certain people have more trust and are more willing to take a chance on someone. Everyone who has met Derek feels grateful to be part of his journey.”


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