Concordia students’ access to legal services on campus threatened

Archived photo by Catherine Reynolds / The Concordian

Without notice, the Concordia Student Union (CSU) executive team motioned to terminate Concordia University’s Legal Information Clinic (LIC) and replace it with a private plan provided by the Alliance pour la Santé Étudiante au Québec (AESQ) insurance association on Jan. 26. This decision will drastically affect students’ access to legal information and support, creating significant barriers for women, English-speakers, immigrants, racialized individuals, and people living with disabilities.

“I think this is one of the worst ideas I’ve seen coming out of the CSU. Students will be losers if this proposal goes forward,” said John Hutton, the former CSU Finance Coordinator of 2018-2019.

The weeks following the CSU’s decision were met with intense backlash from supporters of the clinic from organizations such as the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) and Concordia University’s International Student’s Office (ISO), along with lawyers, volunteers, and students. 

The LIC put forth their counter-motion on Feb. 14 to be voted on and a settlement was not met. A resolution putting the clinic in a state of limbo was put into place and the CSU has yet to publicly release its response, leaving the clinic’s fate up in the air.

According to Ken Downe, who represents the Concordia Arts and Science Federation of Associations (ASFA) on the CSU’s council of representatives, the CSU executives were asked on Feb. 14 why they decided to opt for a privatized plan and quickly brushed concerns and questions aside.

“They didn’t ever answer what their intention was, originally. They hadn’t prepared anything official,” they said. “The CSU isn’t acting in good faith, there’s no transparency and we don’t know what their exact proposal was going to be. We don’t know their reasoning for that.”

Many holistic services provided by the current LIC won’t be included in the new ASEQ insurance. This will make it more difficult for students to navigate their legal issues, especially for non-French speakers. CRARR Executive Director Fo Niemi says that people who file claims to immigration or the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST) without the LIC’s help could be rejected due to poorly drafted complaints.

“A lot of students don’t understand the language, structure, law, system, and worse than that, there’s a lot of pressure to get a quick settlement,” Niemi said. “Under this new plan, students won’t be properly advised. They won’t get much out of these processes.” 

The LIC has helped and referred students to CRARR several times over the past 15 years, such as in the race and gender-based discrimination, and sexual harassment case of Mei Ling, a former ASFA vice-president. In the ASEQ plan, sexual harassment cases aren’t covered. This furthers CRARR’s concern about society’s trend of the increased industry takeover of privatizing public services.

“It has an impact on who gets access to justice,” Niemi said.

The LIC is a free service that gives students access to legal information, referrals, and accompaniment in both French and English. Their team strives to provide students with the best possible resources and options that will aid individuals in making the most suitable decision regarding legal issues. The LIC’s goal is to inform students on how to get the fairest treatment available under the law.

“The LIC doesn’t offer representation, that’s not our mandate. It’s to offer information and support to empower students as legal actors. When we are being asked to compare ourselves to a private insurance plan, it’s false equivalency and it’s not fair to what we do,” said Hannah Deegan, a lawyer who supervises the law student volunteers on a part-time basis at the clinic.

“The clinic is about helping students in the moment and taking the time to help them develop better reflexes about how the legal system works because nobody teaches you how to do that,” Deegan said.

Esther Chu was one of the many students that the LIC empowered. Last September, the LIC reached out to inform her that she wouldn’t be eligible to apply for a permanent residency anymore via the Programme de l’expérience québécoise (PEQ) due to the National Assembly of Quebec’s drastic language requirement changes to the program.

The LIC took swift action, gathered students to contest the Quebec government’s decision and invited Chu to testify. Because of this, students like Chu who were part of the PEQ program and didn’t meet the new language requirements, remained eligible until November 2024. 

“I was very touched by the LIC’s proactive solution-oriented support to the international student community in Concordia. If the LIC closes, it will be a devastating loss,” Chu said.

Downe says that due to the ambiguous nature of CSU’s policies, the CSU executives thought it was in their power to make this kind of decision. However, to remove the fee levy that funds the LIC, there would have to be a referendum to remove the clinic. 

“Within the CSU policy it’s unclear whether the executives can change the services without removing the fee levy and holding a referendum, and there are gaps in the policy that allow things like this to happen,” Downe said. “The bureaucracy of the CSU is its downfall. It’s not well connected to students and direct democracy isn’t there.”

The current fee levy for the LIC is $0.28 per credit or about $8.40 per academic year per undergrad student. The ASEQ Studentcare Legal Care Program’s first proposal to Concordia, which was rejected in March 2021, had a price of $25.00 per academic year per student. Former CSU Executive John Hutton believes that if the ASEQ plan is adopted, the LIC won’t be the only non-profit service to go. 

“Students will be paying more, get less and be very poorly served because community non-profit legal clinics have fundamentally different approaches than for-profit insurance companies. I see this threatening all the service centers,” Hutton said. “The ASEQ’s proposal mentions things like supporting students who face tenant issues. That’s the HOJO’s [Housing and Job Resource Centre] territory. Why wouldn’t ASEQ be like ‘Hey, we can do the work of HOJO too’?”

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