New legal clinic aims to address Black communities’ most pressing needs

Individual legal supports and services for the city’s most marginalized will mark a departure from its African Canadian Legal Clinic predecessor

An advisory committee made up of Black professionals and activists is at work establishing a new legal clinic to service the province’s Black communities.

Formation of the clinic is still in the earliest stages, but the members include Idil Abdillahi, assistant professor at Ryerson’s School of Social Work, former NDP MPP Zanana Akande, Black Lives Matter – Toronto co-founder Sandy Hudson, Jane-Finch community-based defence lawyer Roger Rowe, Aba Stevens, legal counsel to the Canadian Securities Transition Office, and Rinaldo Walcott, director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto.

Walcott sees the new clinic playing a leadership role in informing and shaping conversations on important issues, such as the police officers in schools program, “which a Black legal clinic really interested in challenging anti-Black racism should be involved in.”

Legal Aid Ontario set up the committee prior to its contentious decision to defund the African Canadian Legal Clinic (ACLC), effective September 30, over allegations of financial mismanagement. The ACLC will continue to operate despite losing approximately $670,000 in annual funding from Legal Aid, an amount equal to about 35 per cent of its total operating budget. LAO’s funds will now be redirected to the new clinic, whose proposed focus toward individual legal counsel and services in the area of anti-Black racism is a departure from the ACLC’s madate, which focused on a test-case litigation strategy.

Test cases typically take longer to litigate but can result in decisions that set legal precedents serving the broader public interest. In 2015, for example, the ACLC successfully argued in Aiken v. the Ottawa Police Services Board (OPSB) that a racial profiling settlement between the OPSB and the Ontario Human Rights Commission should not prevent complainants, in this case a young African-Canadian man, from seeking legal remedies independent of the settlement.

But Walcott argues for “smaller service and support” noting that “Black communities need more than test cases. A large percentage of our communities live at the borderline of poverty, and being able to access individual legal services are vital.”

Those services would take into account intersectionality to address the differing realities of Black identities across the diaspora and acknowledge that different groups – Walcott points to queer and trans people in the Black community – require specialized legal counsel attuned to their experiences.

Walcott says that the committee, which was not involved in the dispute between LAO and ACLC or the decision to defund, will engage in a series of community consultations to determine its mandate. It will disband as soon as the new clinic is set up and a new board established. | @missrattan

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