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Universities joining forces to provide legal assistance

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Navigating the legal waters in Winnipeg will soon become a little easier, thanks to a joint venture by the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba.

The Legal Help Centre is a new community resource centre that will provide low-income and disadvantaged people some valuable legal assistance, the two schools announced Tuesday. Students from the University of Manitoba's law and social work programs, as well as the University of Winnipeg's Global College and its criminal justice department, are expected to volunteer at the centre.

Funding will come from a variety of public and private sources. Three people will be employed at the outreach centre, with a host of volunteers -- both students and professionals -- working on the front lines.

"The difference between this centre and legal aid is that legal aid provides actual legal representation, and we have no intention of doing that," executive director Karen Dyck explained. "That's not to say that it won't happen down the road, but at this point that's more than we want to take on."

The centre will take some of the stresses off the provincial Legal Aid program by acting as a triage centre for prospective clients, pointing them in the right direction on specific issues.

Clients with family law concerns like child custody or complications involving things like wills or estates can first talk to someone at the centre before being referred to the next stage -- whether that's a community law office or a private practice.

Discussions are underway to give students academic credit for participating in the endeavour. According to Lorna Turnbull, associate dean of law at the University of Manitoba, the experience will build on the faculty's impressive practice of experiential learning.

She said Winnipeg's law community will play a big role in the success of this venture.

"This serves like a practicum," Turnbull said. "We will have faculty present to supervise, but it's really the (provincial bar members) who will make this happen."

The Legal Help Centre was created in response to a stretched Legal Aid Manitoba service and the noticeable service gap that resulted. When the U of W's Global College examined how the system works for the under-privileged and identified that gap, the centre's blueprint was quickly created.

Yvonne Peters, an equality rights lawyer who serves as the program chairwoman for the centre, said the goal is not to compete with the handful of legal aid services in Winnipeg, but rather fill in the spaces.

"Sometimes people just need to know what their options are," Peters said.

The centre is expected to open in 2011. No exact location has been chosen, but officials are hoping for a street-front location somewhere in the University of Winnipeg's downtown footprint.

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2010 B4

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