Ecojustice lauded for innovative legal clinic

OTTAWA — Over the past year they have worked on a World Trade Organization dispute, a submission to the Supreme Court of Canada, a National Energy Board review, and presentations before parliamentary committees.

And they’re not even out of law school yet.
However, Will Amos, director of the Ecojustice clinic, says that kind of real-world experience is one of the reasons the organization at the University of Ottawa recently received a McConnell Foundation prize for community service learning.

“I don’t think there is any doubt that it is a unique partnership, a leading public interest charity devoted to environmental law and environmental protection and a law faculty,” says Amos. “That’s pretty special.”

Founded in 2007, Ecojustice’s legal clinic has proven to be a win-win arrangement for both the University of Ottawa and Ecojustice, a non-governmental organization that focuses on using the law to help protect the environment.

Each semester, 15 law students receive course credit for working with the clinic and get specialized lectures and hands-on experience working on the kinds of cases many lawyers don’t get to handle until well into their practice.

In turn, Ecojustice gets help researching and preparing legal cases and office space at the University of Ottawa. At the same time, the university contributes to the clinic’s budget of $350,000 a year.

The program has been so successful that it will soon be expanding to include a science component. The clinic is planning to hire a science staff member who will work with 15 science students per semester on environmental science issues identified by Ecojustice.

“The point is to be able to translate complex science into a language that we as lawyers can understand better and that our clients can understand better,” says Amos.

The legal clinic, which offers its services pro bono, always has more potential cases than it can handle, says Amos.

Consequently, it’s strategic in which cases it agrees to represent and gives preference to those involving significant environmental issues or that have the ability to set precedent.

“Not every wetland can be saved,” Amos says bluntly. “Not every bad development project can be stopped and Ecojustice and, by extension, the clinic has to be very picky.

We have to follow a very strategic approach to identifying the types of cases we want to bring, identifying fact patterns that are brought to us by prospective clients that may fit those strategic cases that we are identifying.”

For example, Ecojustice is interested in cases that would make a healthy environment a constitutional right.

“We are quite excited, for instance, about work that is being done in the area of environmental rights and the interpretation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — in particular, s. 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — to incorporate a right to a healthy environment.”

Because the clinic is so strategic about the cases it takes on, students often find themselves on the cutting edge of environmental issues and preparing matters to go before some of the highest courts and decision-making bodies.

For example, over the past year alone, legal clinic students worked on a submission in a WTO trade dispute launched by Japan over Ontario’s guaranteed minimum price for renewable energy. Japan complained it was an illegal subsidy.

“I guess you would call it a unique contribution to a really important global debate,” says Amos. “It’s not just Canada where we are seeing this issue play out.”

When Parliament introduced its omnibus budget implementation legislation that includes significant changes to environmental reviews, clinic students helped Amos prepare presentations before parliamentary committees.

“The breadth of the files is impressive, I think, and I think that is what generates the students’ interest because they know that no matter what aspect of environmental protection they are interested in, whether it is international or domestic, litigation or law reform, they’re all there for them,” says Amos. “And they are going to be involved in some of the meatiest and most politically charged debates.”

In the case of former Ecojustice legal clinic student Ashley Deathe, the passion continues to this day. She credits her experience at the clinic with helping her get her current job at Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP in Ottawa.

“It was amazing to come into a job interview having an inkling of what you can and cannot do with law and I could speak coherently about that,” she says.

“As someone who was interested in practising environmental law, it gave me exposure into the kinds of practice and policy work, the kinds of ways that environmental law can be practised in the private law arena, which is what I do now,” she adds.

In the meantime, Amos expects the legal clinic to get even busier in the future, in part because of the “unprecedented” changes at the federal level.

“The changes that are being proposed are massive and far-reaching,” he says. “So that does make it very challenging for us because many people are looking to Ecojustice in Ottawa to provide assistance in these files.”

The challenge, however, doesn’t faze Amos. “It’s almost always David and Goliath. That’s part of the fun.”

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