In celebration of National Volunteer Week (April 23 – April 29, 2017), we spoke to an exceptional Rise volunteer, Nermin Karim, to discuss why she volunteers with Rise and how her work at the clinic helps improve women’s access to legal services.
Why I Volunteer With Rise: Volunteer Lawyer, Nermin Karim
Volunteer Lawyer, Nermin Karim
Q. What is your profession and the area of expertise you predominately practice in?
I am a family law lawyer and I practice mostly with women who can’t access justice because of poverty and with women who are facing abuse.
Q. How did the nature of your profession and your area of expertise influence your decision to get involved with Rise?
Rise is a wonderful addition to the services that are available to help women who are disadvantaged. I feel so privileged to be a part of the solution.
Q. What motivates you to continue to volunteer?
I believe inherently that we all come from the same soul. Once you believe that, it obliges you to help those in need.
Q. How long have you been involved with Rise? What is your volunteer role?
I began with Rise in January 2017, conducting summary advice appointments with women. Rise has such a long waitlist and my role is to help chip away at that list. Where appropriate, clients on the waitlist for service are offered the option of a summary advice appointment with a volunteer lawyer instead of going into the student program. This helps decrease the wait time for other women on the waitlist who are hoping to receive services from Rise.
Q. What skills and experience do you put to use in your volunteer position at Rise?
As well as being a family law lawyer, I’m trained as a Restorative Justice Practitioner. That training made me a more active listener, able to make space for my clients’ stories. Women who have experienced trauma need a cautious and sensitized ear.
My work in the Downtown Eastside has exposed me to women facing financial crisis amongst other multiple barriers that impede their access to justice. I’ve learnt through that work to be aware of my own biases and keep them in check.
I also know that no one comes to family law with a happy story. The women are sometimes quite fragile.
Q. What skills and experience do you think are of value for volunteer lawyers who are thinking of getting involved at Rise to have?
You have to be able to see things through a gendered lens and through a violence against women lens. Some of the women coming in don’t themselves realize that their experiences are not acceptable. One client’s partner locked up the family’s financial information so that she had no access. Another woman’s partner charged her for assault when she finally defended herself from his abuse. You tell them their rights and let them make an informed choice in their next steps.
You also have to know that when you’re hearing about signs of ex-partners being financially controlling that’s just one level of abuse and there’s probably another level of abuse she’s not telling you.
Q. How does your experience volunteering at Rise differ from other volunteer positions you’ve held?
I love how well organized and efficient Rise is. I really appreciate all the support structures in place for me when I volunteer there. Sheila feeds me soup just about every time I go, and everyone there is amazing. I’m surrounded by rockstars! It’s the coolest thing. Because the support structures are there and it is so well organized I feel as though Rise maximizes the use of my time.
Q. How does the work Rise is doing differ from other community services and legal clinics in BC?
Rise is filling a gap which unfortunately should not rest on the shoulders of non-profits. This should have been a government funded resource but the huge funding cuts to legal aid have left a gaping hole and women are more disproportionately affected by that gap in services.
Rise has been a shining star in trying to fill that gap. While they don’t have all the resources they need, they are doing it and it’s awesome. It is a step to filling a huge need.
One of the large gaps is that person who doesn’t qualify for legal aid but can’t afford a lawyer. And, there are so many people who fit into that category.
Q. What is one of the most rewarding parts about being involved with Rise?
Did I mention Sheila’s soup? It has built a community of mentors around me. When I’m in a situation and I’m stuck, I know I can reach out to Kim, Vandana or Raji and ask a question and they’ll help. There is just a ridiculous amount of knowledge in that place. I have people I can turn to and this is an amazing resource.
Thank you for your continued dedication and support Nermin! Rise also recognizes the hard work and hundreds of hours donated by all our volunteers during our first year open.
If you are interested in getting involved with Rise in a volunteer position, please visit our website for more details.
Executive Director of Rise Women’s Legal Centre, Kim Hawkins discusses access to justice as an issue of women’s equality in the Vancouver Sun online for International Women’s Day 2017. See the full article below, or visit the Vancouver Sun online.
“Be Bold for Change” is the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day and the message could not be more timely.
Since the early 1900s, International Women’s Day has celebrated women’s achievements while calling for gender equality. While we see examples everywhere of women successfully contributing in business and politics, organizing, marching, and writing, there remain many challenges to the achievement of substantive equality. One such challenge is access to justice.
Rise Women’s Legal Centre is a new legal clinic that provides free and low cost legal services to low-income, self-identified women. Our services, which mainly address family law problems, are delivered by upper year students from the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law, in collaboration with staff lawyer supervisors. As the executive director of Rise, the question that I am asked more than any other is why we have a legal clinic that provides services exclusively to women.
In short, we provide legal services to women because access to family law services is a women’s equality issue. Since 2002, many people in British Columbia needing legal assistance have been denied adequate representation because of staggering cuts to legal aid. While men and women have been negatively impacted by the cuts, which saw the legal aid budget reduced by 40 per cent over three years, it was some of the services that were most accessed by women, such as family law and poverty law, that were cut the deepest. Despite some small pilot projects funded by the provincial government in recent years, B.C.’s spending on legal aid remains the third lowest per capita in Canada.
Today legal aid representation in family law cases is only available where there is actual or threatened family violence, or to resolve the serious denial of access to children – even for people whose low income would otherwise make them eligible for assistance. The Canadian Bar Association B.C. Branch, in its recently published Agenda for Justice, has stated that B.C.’s justice system requires attention now to avert a growing crisis, and called for adequate funding for family law services which were eliminated in 2002, including issues of divorce, child access and custody, financial support and asset division. They noted that 71 per cent of people who would financially qualify for such services are women.
The effects of marital breakdown on women can be severe. Data analyzed by the University of Toronto in 2008 demonstrated that women’s median income in the years following their separation dropped significantly more than men’s, and did not recover, even after four years. Research shows that women still earn less than men in the paid labour force, are disproportionately responsible for child and elder care within families, and are disproportionately the victims of family violence. All of these issues have been exacerbated by cuts to other social services that supported women including women’s centres, the Human Rights Commission, and welfare. The result is that women are less likely to be able to afford a lawyer than men, another reason that cuts to family law legal aid impact women more severely.
And although the non-profit community in British Columbia has stepped up to provide a network of transition homes, anti-violence organizations and advocates who can provide legal information, these programs usually cannot provide legal advice or representation. Legal information is not the same as legal advocacy and representation, and access to pamphlets and online tools, as important as it is, cannot stand in for the advice and support of a trained legal professional. Leaving aside literacy, language barriers, and access to safe and accessible Internet, legal problems are lonely, complex and difficult, and unmet legal needs can lead to broader social problems.
For all of these reasons, Rise Women’s Legal Centre was created to serve women as an important step toward women’s equality in B.C.
Being bold can look like a political march, but it can also look like a woman seeking a protection order for herself and her child, a law student who pushes past their fear to bring a court application for the first time, and people everywhere working within their individual sectors to inch us incrementally towards gender parity. Ultimately, we must all Be Bold for Change wherever it is needed.
Written by a Rise student, this thoughtful reflection details the student clinician’s increased understanding of family law and their experiences transitioning from the classroom to working in the clinic at Rise. This reflection appeared in Issue 151, on Diversity in Verdict magazine, published by the Trial Lawyers Association of BC in the Winter 2017 edition.
From Classroom to Clinic – By: Arash Ehteshami
In my first weeks at Rise Women’s Legal Centre, I quickly came to realize that my knowledge around family law legislation and case law did not help me in the slightest when trying to understand the complex mechanics of actually navigating the court process. Even the simplest task, like initiating proceedings in either Provincial or Supreme Court, became mind-numbingly difficult to grasp, despite ready access to CLE materials and bountiful online resources. I may have been shell-shocked being thrown into a clinic environment, but nonetheless, it has made me appreciate the barriers many people face when trying to access our courts. And this is coming from someone that has had the privilege of attending law school for the past couple of years.
There is a very real difference, I find, between reading about divorce and family violence in a textbook and having a client share their first-hand experience about the same topic, face-to-face. No matter how explicitly a textbook (or even a judgment) tries to frame a client’s experience, it still lacks the ‘human’ element that makes working at Rise so different from being in the classroom. I don’t remember a single time in law school where a client was described to have suddenly broken out in tears, trying to recall years of abuse suffered at the hand of a former partner. Instead, family law is systematically decontextualized in the classroom into isolated issues, where emotion is superfluous and takes a back-seat to the ‘real’ issues at hand.
The change from the classroom to the real world has further been quite drastic for me: facts that were previously handed out on a silver platter now require careful questioning of clients, and issues that were blatantly obvious to spot in fact-patterns have now become an exercise in balancing priorities, from most-to least-urgent. While I’m unsure to what extent the PLTC module on family law can bridge the gap between the classroom and working with clients, I know that once the metaphorical rubber hit the figurative road, being able to read pleadings quickly and getting a handle on a client’s case took precedence over knowing what exact paragraph the test for relocation was set out in Gordon v Goertz. It’s amazing to look back on the last two months at Rise and realize just how far my understanding of family law has come.
Overall, I find myself very fortunate to be able to complement my studies with the practical know-how offered at Rise. Not only will I graduate with tangible, real-life experience in dealing with clients, I also get the opportunity to take family law for a spin and see if it truly is a field that I want to commit my time and energy to, once I graduate.
Moreover, it is incredible just how much positive work we can do for clients that literally have nowhere else to turn for their family and child protection matters. Sometimes, even giving the client an hour of time to listen to her legal problem, without making her pay out of her ears can help in easing, even if only temporarily the crushing emotional and psychological stress that she may have lived with for years. It is both inspiring and humbling.