Aboriginal Law Graduates Working Group report and recommendations

Law Society advised how to address discriminatory barriers

A special working group has completed the final phase of a study to identify and address discriminatory barriers facing Aboriginal lawyers, law graduates and students. Their work has culminated in a 52-page report featuring 35 recommendations for reform, including ways of improving the access of Aboriginal people to legal education, articles and practice opportunities.

The Aboriginal Law Graduates Working Group is chaired by UVic Professor Gerry Ferguson, and comprised of Hugh Braker, Q.C., Terry Brown, Gary Campo, Linda Locke, Bonnie Leonard, Candice Metallic, Linda Thomas and Kory Wilson-Goertzen. An advisory group — comprised of William Duncan, Jack Huberman, Q.C., Prof. June McCue, Justice Lynn Smith and Judge Daniel Steinberg — provided assistance.

The Working Group reviewed Report on the Survey of Aboriginal Law Graduates in British Columbia (1996), which found many survey participants reported some form of cultural or discriminatory barriers in law school, articles and practice. The Working Group reviewed in great depth feedback from focus group sessions in which Aboriginal law graduates and law students explored the nature and extent of discriminatory barriers and suggested possible solutions for eliminating such barriers: Summary of the Discussion of the Aboriginal Law Graduates Focus Groups (1998).

Aboriginal persons have been, and continue to be, under-represented in the legal profession, the Aboriginal Law Graduates Working Groups notes in its report. Because successful completion of a law degree is a condition for becoming a lawyer, ensuring Aboriginal access to law school is a critical first step in increasing the number of Aboriginal lawyers.

The Working Group reviewed pre-law education programs available to Aboriginals from B.C. and concluded that access into these programs would be improved by offering a distance education option, and by the Law Society developing a funding strategy to ensure that Aboriginal students who have an offer of admission to a B.C. law school have adequate financial means to attend a pre-law program if they wish.

The Working Group recommended that CLE and PLTC provide copies of their Aboriginal course materials, or components, to the B.C. law schools to further facilitate the expansion of Aboriginal materials in the law school curriculum, and that the Law Society offer annual curriculum enhancement grants to hire research students to prepare course components.

The Group also recommended that the law faculties continue to respond to discriminatory barriers through such means as better preparing incoming students for the culture shock and social isolation that they may experience at law school and by promoting and supporting Aboriginal law student activities, such as arranging visits by Elders and guest lecturers. The Working Group also asked the faculties to look at creating and applying a comprehensive Aboriginal equity policy respecting admissions, curriculum, faculty recruitment and law school environment and to continue to promote the values of anti-racism and anti-discrimination.

Other key recommendations in the Working Group's report include steps for incorporating Aboriginal legal issues into PLTC and CLE programs, and establishing a mentorship program for Aboriginal law students that would begin in law school and extend into articles.

To promote fair and adequate access to articling opportunities, and to help eliminate discriminatory experiences, the Working Group recommended that the Law Society appoint an articling liaison officer. The role of that officer would include working with career placement officers at the two B.C. law schools to keep lists of law students and firms looking for articling matches, to keep a directory of lawyers who are willing to split articles with other lawyers and to investigate the creation of financial support programs for Aboriginal students who need financial assistance during articles.

The Working Group's report and recommendations are available in the Publications & Forms section of the Law Society website at www.lawsociety.bc.ca. For a paper copy, please contact Kuan Foo, Equity and Diversity Program Coordinator at the Law Society office (see page 2).