Monday, August 21, 2023

Downtown Legal Services Fasken Building

Lawyer and clinic director, Prasanna Balasundaram (far left), with staff lawyers Asiya Hirji and Jennifer Fehr, alongside staff and summer caseworkers on the steps of the Fasken Building, home to U of T's community legal clinic and clinical legal education program, Downtown Legal Services. 

More than 50 years ago, a student-led initiative at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, then known as U of T’s Students’ Legal Aid Society (SLAS), received funding for a summer project that became the foundation for a community legal clinic in Toronto.

Today, U of T’s Downtown Legal Services (DLS), located in the Fasken Building at 655 Spadina Avenue, serves as a community legal clinic and clinical legal education program, offering free legal assistance to U of T students and low-income individuals in areas including housing law, refugee and immigration law, criminal law (summary offences), employment law, family law, and income security.

Each year, 65 U of T Law students enrol in the for-credit clinical course during the academic year. In addition, the clinic hires 20 first- and second-year JD students to join the clinic as summer caseworkers.

Laxsega Sivaloganathan

For Laxsega Sivaloganathan, who starts her second year of law school this fall, the summer experience has been eye-opening.

“We hear about the access to justice issue, but at DLS we see it in real-time —intersections of different systems of oppression — making the circumstances of our client’s lives very difficult,” she says.

As a first-generation law student whose parents immigrated to Canada from Sri Lanka, Sivaloganathan has seen first-hand in her personal life how the criminal justice system can impact families.

“I’ve seen the outcome when someone has good legal representation and when someone doesn't have access to any representation. It motivated me to go to law school.”

Sivaloganathan says her DLS experience has also invigorated her passion for law and has allowed her to grow, both personally and professionally. Part of her growth has been learning how to manage her emotions.

“It can be emotionally taxing because you can’t always get the outcome you want for your client. There may be mitigating circumstances for their actions, but those don't hold up in court. It can’t be legally argued. It can be frustrating to explain that to a client who’s feeling justified for what they've done.”

Sivaloganathan, who is deeply appreciative of the financial aid support she’s received through the Faculty’s donor supported bursary program, had her DLS position position generously funded by Baker McKenzie.

“At Baker McKenzie, we are committed to the development of future lawyers, especially those who identify with a group that has been historically underrepresented in the legal profession in Canada,” says Haran Viswanathan (JD 2014), a graduate of U of T Law and a senior associate of the Corporate Transactions Practice Group at Baker McKenzie and a member of its Student Recruitment Committee.

“Having completed the for-credit clinical course when I was in law school, I know firsthand that the hands-on training DLS provides is invaluable, regardless of the area of law a student ultimately pursues upon graduation. Through our partnership with DLS, we are looking to provide such individuals with this opportunity, as well as meaningful access to lawyers at our firm who will help provide support and guidance to these students as they transition into the practice of law," he says. 

Sivaloganathan agrees the experience has been invaluable.

“For law firms who wish to support a caseworker position at DLS, it’s the best way to get students who are interested in applying to your firm prepared for the real-world of practising law,” she says, adding a key part of her position was connecting with Viswanathan on a personal level and having him as a mentor.

“Haran has given me advice for law school, the upcoming 2L recruit, and helped me determine future areas of practice.”

“This experience has been unmatched.”