Advocacy that sparks change

Dalhousie Legal Aid Service’s groundbreaking advocacy

- December 13, 2017

DLAS lawyer Claire McNeil (left) with law student Katie Smith. (Jane Doucet photo)
DLAS lawyer Claire McNeil (left) with law student Katie Smith. (Jane Doucet photo)

Two years ago, East Preston resident Brenton Sparks, his wife, Rosemary, and their three young daughters were receiving income assistance in the form of a monthly cheque totalling slightly more than $1,000. In return, Brenton was expected to look for work and meet with an employment counsellor. When he missed a meeting due to a family emergency, the Department of Community Services suspended the family’s entire assistance cheque for six weeks in the middle of winter.

Brenton appealed the department’s cut-off of the family’s income assistance to the Assistance Appeal Board and lost. He then applied for judicial review of that decision to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court and lost again. But in a recent ruling, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal sided with Sparks against Community Services — thanks to the pro bono efforts of various organizations, including Dalhousie Legal Aid Service (DLAS).

Representing Brenton in court was Dal law school alumnus Vincent Calderhead of the Halifax firm Pink Larkin. Claire McNeil, a DLAS staff lawyer since 1991, represented both Rosemary and her children and the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), which was an intervener in the case. (LEAF’s mandate is to protect and promote the interests of women and children in Canada.)

The decision to cut off the family’s social assistance had a terrible effect on their health and well-being: they had no money for heat and had to move, and they couldn’t afford food and other necessities. The Court of Appeal agreed. In his decision, Chief Justice Michael MacDonald said: “Simply put, denying innocent people, living in poverty, the funds they need for financial survival cannot be sustained by any reasonable interpretation of the governing legislation.” The province’s top court lifted the suspension of benefits for Rosemary and the children and ordered the province to pay Brenton’s legal costs of about $2,000.

Leading to changes in the law

Claire McNeil believes the Sparks decision is changing the conversation about poverty’s impact on women and children. “In the last 20 years, I’ve never seen a groundbreaking decision like this about poverty from the Court of Appeal,” she says. “It’ll be interesting to see how the Sparks decision is going to change the law.”

The Court’s decision was a major victory for the Sparks family. “It didn’t change the hardship they endured, but they felt they had been heard and that their case will help others – there is dignity in that,” says McNeil. “It’s great when the justice system works, but when it doesn’t work those are great learning opportunities for our students. The cases we fight and lose are just as important to reflect on and figure out a way forward.”

The students to which McNeil is referring are the 16 third-year Schulich School of Law students who spend a semester working at the Clinic in return for 13 credits. Last year, law students Kym Sweeney and Sarah Gillet worked on the Sparks file (they graduated in May). They read the application to intervene, took instructions from the client and did a lot of research and writing.

This semester Katie Smith has been assigned to the file. She’s drafting a freedom of information request to send to Community Services to find out how many people have been cut off income assistance when another person in their family appears to have broken one of the rules.

“Working on the Sparks file has influenced my work and research on other files here,” she says. “It’s given me a different perspective generally about the issues my clients face, because virtually all of them are on income assistance. When a family’s benefits get cut off, it’s devastating.”

Smith recognizes that while the legislation hasn’t changed, the Sparks decision is precedent-setting because it transforms the court’s interpretation of the Employment Support and Income Assistance Act in Nova Scotia. “Income assistance work and family law are rewarding areas of law because you get to work with clients one on one and make a huge difference in their lives,” she says. “It has its own stressors, because you’re dealing with real people and some of the situations are tense, but there’s great support from supervisors and the other students.”

Canada’s oldest clinical law program and Nova Scotia’s only community law clinic

Claire McNeil was in Smith’s shoes in 1984, when she was a Dal law student under then DLAS director Professor Rollie Thompson. “I attended an open house during second year, talked to upper years who had worked there, and thought it sounded amazing,” she says. “I worked there for the summer and stayed for the fall term. It’s where I discovered the reason why I went to law school and what being a lawyer was all about.”

Opened in 1970, DLAS began as a summer project of five Dal law students based at the Halifax Neighbourhood Centre (it has been in its current location at 2209 Gottingen St. since 1998). At the time, it was the first legal service for poor people in Nova Scotia. Today, it’s the only community law clinic in the province and the oldest clinical law program in Canada. It has five full-time staff lawyers and two community legal workers. As many as 16 law students can be representing as many as 10 clients under the supervising staff in the fall and winter and up to 12 in the summer.

Donna Franey, who graduated from Dal’s law school in 1986, was a DLAS staff lawyer from 1990 to 1995, when she became executive director. She describes the Sparks case as “landmark” and feels that it speaks to DLAS’s mission, which is to have an impact on an individual level but also on the broader societal issues that impact people who live on low incomes.

“Our students get to see law reform through the courts and to help make a positive change in society — that’s what this case does,” says Franey. “It’s a privilege for us to do this kind of work.”


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