Oct. 26, 2020

Feeling the financial crunch? A new program may be able to help

Public Interest Law Clinic launches program to help Albertans with debt or mortgage default
A pink piggy bank on a pink background
Feeling the financial crunch? A new program may be able to help. Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

Being in debt is a bummer, no matter how or when it happens. The $20 you borrowed from your buddy to buy a book, or the $2,000 you borrowed from the bank to cover your expenses for a month, owing money can be a huge stressor, affecting your mental and emotional health.

For many Albertans, the global pandemic has meant job reductions or losses, forcing people to defer important payments, and to rely on government assistance to cover basic expenses over the past several months. Those deferrals are ending, and many people don’t know where to turn to find ways to pay off the debt they have accrued. Enter the new Consumer Debt Negotiation Project from UCalgary Law’s Public Interest Law Clinic.

“The primary goal of the project is to assist Albertans in foreclosure or with one or two outstanding debts, to engage with their creditors to find arrangements that help both parties deal with the debt,” explains Christine Laing, the clinic’s executive director.

“The goal is to move the last-minute negotiations that happen on the courthouse steps to a time when debtors can better explore their options. We are filling a gap not met by existing legal and financial counselling services in the province, and we will co-ordinate with other existing services to help Albertans move forward to a place of recovery.”

Christine Laing, executive director, Public Interest Law Clinic

Christine Laing, executive director, Public Interest Law Clinic

Project will also provide opportunity for law grads

The project’s second goal is to help another group of Albertans who have been hit hard by the pandemic — the more than 50 law school graduates who are without articling positions, the crucial next step to becoming a licensed lawyer.

“Law students will be able to work alongside volunteer lawyers to complete composite articles while providing access to justice for people across the province,” says Laing. The student positions wouldn’t be a full article, as there would be essential components of articling that can’t be provided by the program, but the opportunity will get students closer to their goal of becoming a practising lawyer.

To help fund the articling positions and ensure the students can earn a salary, the clinic has launched a crowdfunding campaign, with an initial target of raising $25,000.

We’re counting on the legal community to pass the hat and help get some young lawyers launched in their careers.

Volunteers essential to project’s success

Finally, the project is counting on practising and retired lawyers and judges across the province to volunteer to work with the students in the program. Volunteers will be trained to bring them up to speed on debt-related legal issues.

Judith Hanebury, LLB’79, LLM’91, helped launched the project. She believes retired lawyers or judges would be great candidates to help with the program.

“There are probably a lot of retired lawyers and judges across the province whose plans have changed as a result of the pandemic, and they may now have time to use their skills and wisdom to help Albertans at this critical time.”

Ultimately, the Consumer Debt Negotiation Project will provide a pro bono service to connect Albertans in need with the people who can help them with their debt.

“We’re not frontline workers or an essential service. But lawyers are part of society and we can step up to put our skills to help the public good when needed,” says Laing.

Oct. 26 to 31, 2020 is Alberta Access to Justice Week, which aims to raise awareness about access to justice and to continue an important conversation about what access to justice means and how to provide it to all Canadians. Find out more 

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