March 22, 2019

Public Interest Law Clinic offers experiential learning for law students

Team provides pro bono legal services for cases that include strategic law reform component

For Shaun Fluker, the University of Calgary’s Public Interest Law Clinic is a bridge connecting the Faculty of Law, the common good and a better future, for people and the planet.

“It’s experiential learning for law students, and that is something that law schools across the country are really encouraging these days,” says Fluker, an associate professor in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law, who stepped down from his role as the clinic’s executive director in February. “I’m really happy with the top-notch work we’re able to do.”

The work done by the Public Interest Law Clinic, which operates in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law, is a close fit with Fluker’s own research, which primarily centres on public participation and transparency in resources and environmental decision-making; implementing environmental norms with law; and public interest litigation. The clinic focuses its legal work on addressing systemic issues in the public interest realm.

To this end, the Public Interest Law Clinic not only provides law students with academic credit and experiential learning opportunities, but also serves the community by providing pro bono legal services for cases that include a strategic law reform component.

A recent  example of this is the Redwater Energy case, heard by the Supreme Court of Canada last year. Christine Laing (a clinic staff lawyer who is now the clinic’s acting executive director) and Fluker, with the assistance of Drew Yewchuk (another staff lawyer with the clinic), appeared as counsel at the Supreme Court representing a local landowner group, the Action Surface Rights Association. 

“One of our arguments was to have the Supreme Court to uphold the ‘polluter pays principle’ — in this case the company that’s gone bankrupt,” Fluker says. “The result of the Supreme Court decision (released in late January) is that trustees overseeing the bankruptcy of oil and gas companies are subject to the authority of the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), requiring them to effectively leave money in the bankrupt estate to cover the costs of cleanup … This decision has a positive impact for all Albertans.”

The Redwater decision still doesn’t fix Alberta’s orphan well problem, Yewchuk notes. “With the Redwater decision the AER has the power, if they have the political will to do it, to get that money. But the AER still doesn’t have the money or an enforcement mechanism to clean up all of the orphan wells ... The huge winners are actually other provincial environmental regulators. The Redwater decision will be incredibly helpful for their environmental protection laws.”

According to Laing, the Public Interest Law Clinic will always have a strong environmental law base, while at the same time, it’s also building capacity to handle matters of human rights law.

 “We’ve started doing some very exciting work at the intersection of poverty and the law,” she says. “There is a lot of work to be done to improve access to justice across the board for people who can’t afford lawyers, and we want to be developing our capacity and expertise in that field.”

The Public Interest Law Clinic is helping law students “develop a professional identity and begin to see themselves as the stewards, and ultimately the shapers, of our justice system,” Laing adds.