To the rescue: (front from left) Roslyn Tsao, Richard Green, Nikki Gershbain and Phil Epstein. Back: Margueretta Hanna.
To the rescue: (front from left) Roslyn Tsao, Richard Green, Nikki Gershbain and Phil Epstein. Back: Margueretta Hanna.

The campaign to save the Family Law Project

By Randi Chapnik Myers / Photography by Gordon Hawkins

From the Fall/Winter 2013 issue of Nexus.

Last July, when Ontario Court Justice Harvey Brownstone met lawyers Nikki Gershbain, LLB 2000, and Phil Epstein, LLB 1968, for breakfast at downtown Toronto’s Metropolitan Hotel, he knew they had to discuss some very bad news. The Family Law Project (FLP), a crucial pro bono service for low-income litigants he helped to found 17 years ago, was at risk of closure. In fact, as Gershbain explained, the situation had become so dire that she needed substantial financial support to keep it running.

The award-winning project that has law students serving thousands of unrepresented Ontarians in provincial court each year was on the chopping block because the organization running it, Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC) was facing a shortfall of $400,000 over three years, according to Gershbain, PBSC’s national director.

Brownstone was saddened. “I couldn’t believe that this vital, universally supported program that lies at the very heart of the family justice system, was in such financial straits,” he says.  “Our court system would literally implode without it.”

The judge first conceived of the Family Law Project after massive Legal Aid cutbacks in 1996 caused a deluge of unrepresented people in family court. All of a sudden, litigants no longer qualified for Legal Aid but at the same time, they could not afford to pay a lawyer to help them get relief. As a result, the courts slowed, almost to a standstill. 

After speaking about the crisis at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, Brownstone realized that during the painful and confusing time of a breakup, what unrepresented spouses needed most was guidance filling out the documents to get their stories before a judge. And law students could easily do that work.

He was right. Through the Family Law Project, the PBSC began recruiting students from across Canada to help some of the most vulnerable members of our community. Today, students from five Ontario law schools work in eight family courts for 10 months of the year.

Gershbain, who practiced family law with Phil Epstein after she graduated, says “family law clients often find themselves in crisis.  Not only do most face financial hurdles to accessing the justice system, many experience additional barriers, including language, education, culture and fear of domestic violence and reprisal by their spouse.”

Litigants often need immediate relief in the form of interim custody, access or restraining orders. Under the supervision of Legal Aid lawyers, PBSC students help them fill out their forms and navigate the complex court system, providing them dignity, guidance and direct legal assistance.

Philip M. Epstein, Q.C., co-founder of Epstein Cole LLP in Toronto, believes so strongly in the Family Law Project that he offered to help save it – “right there at breakfast,” says Gershbain.

While she was delighted by her former boss’ generosity, she was not at all surprised. “Phil Epstein is considered to be one of the leading family law lawyers in Canada. He is also one of the most generous people I have ever met.  He has been a mentor and an inspiration to me.  I knew how committed he was to pro bono because when I practiced at the firm, I worked on a ton of pro bono files.  I was confident he would step up.”

And step up he did. In addition to offering a combined personal and firm donation of $150,000, Epstein volunteered to chair The Pro Bono Students Canada Campaign for Family Justice. With a fundraising goal of $650,000, his efforts will not only preserve the program but will also allow for its expansion. 

“I am well aware of the significant problems in the family justice system and I will do anything to improve them,” Epstein says, and he is making good on that promise. After assembling a committee of leading family law professionals, he is hard at work soliciting donations from anyone with a strong interest in social justice, including Mattamy Homes founder Peter Gilgan, who came to the FLP’s rescue with a generous $150,000 gift.

The campaign has now raised more than $300,000, and will culminate in a gala event on October 23, 2014. In the meantime, the committee is working on securing high-end auction items such as sports tickets, art and access to vacation homes.

Epstein Cole articling student Margaretta Hanna, JD 2013, is relieved that the firm she works for is doing its part to save the Family Law Project. In law school, she was the FLP program coordinator for the University of Toronto.

“With 82 per cent of people coming to court unrepresented because they can’t afford lawyers, this program keeps students very busy. Without their work, the courts couldn’t function. So many lives would be affected,” Hanna says.

Her most memorable client was a woman, a new Canadian, who had gathered the courage to take her kids and leave her abusive spouse. Living in a shelter, the woman needed an emergency motion to get full custody so her husband couldn’t take the kids to another country. But standing up in court was difficult. In her culture, women didn’t speak directly to men – and the judge was a man.

“This woman needed five documents completed to get her story told. It took all day but in the end, the judge gave her a custody order, a restraining order and child support – all on a temporary emergency basis,” Hanna says. “That day changed her life, and I was a part of it.”

The fact is, almost every client needs help in family court, Hanna says. There’s a lot of complex paperwork – including affidavits and financial statements – and language is a common barrier.

But while the Family Law Project is invaluable to the public it serves, it has far-reaching benefits as well, Brownstone says. Not only does the program keep the courts moving swiftly, but it also offers law students the rare opportunity to get out of the classroom and into the courtroom.

“This program creates a pool of lawyers that want to do this important work, so it helps our profession grow,” Brownstone says. At the same time, he adds, it instills a valuable pro bono ethic in the next generation of lawyers.

Gershbain says that even though she had faith in her former boss and law firm, “in my wildest imagination I never expected this level of generosity.”

“Phil Epstein and Epstein Cole have not only single-handedly saved our Family Law Project, they have saved PBSC.  By jumpstarting our campaign, we can avoid laying off almost half our staff.  We are all in their debt.”