Sophie Purnell, a third-year law student at the University of Calgary, will be working with Molly Naber-Sykes, executive director of the school's new Public Interest Law Clinic, to shine a spotlight on areas where the law isn’t working as well as it should for disadvantaged groups of people. Photo by Wil Andruschak/for CREB®Now

New Public Interest Law Clinic to challenge landlord-tenant law in Alberta

As a child, Sophie Purnell lived in Burundi before her family fled due to the country’s increasing violence.

Now, as a third-year law student at the University of Calgary, she is hoping to make life better for others by working with a group of students to change landlord-tenant law in Alberta, one issue at a time.

The students — all second- and third-year law students — are taking a new course offered through the school’s new Public Interest Law Clinic. Supervised by university professors, as well as local public interest lawyers, the students will take on cases from the clinic that fall under the public interest banner as part of their course load.

This term, students will be learning about residential tenancy law, human rights and potential constitutional challenges in the way tenants are treated.

“I saw this course as an opportunity to facilitate access to justice for vulnerable groups of people, and to make a positive impact,” said Purnell.

“I’m interested in public law because of my own personal experiences living in a war-torn country and being fortunate enough to leave,” said Purnell.

The course will also work with student on the “hard skills of lawyering,” said Molly Naber-Sykes, the clinic’s executive director

“Interviewing and screening clients, learning what the issues are, that sort of thing,” she said. “They’ll learn how to draft effective letters, statements of claim, affidavits, and they’ll learn about advocacy, too.”

The clinic was launched in November 2015 after members of Calgary’s legal community saw a need for precedent-setting legislation that serves Albertans with a common interest.

“Our primary mandate isn’t to help individuals, but to provoke law reform if necessary and shine a spotlight on areas where the law isn’t working as well as it should for disadvantaged groups of people,” said Naber-Sykes.

“We have chosen to represent tenants of low or no-income housing because we have heard of difficulties with vulnerable, non-English speaking clients dealing with landlords and understanding the residential tenancy regime.

We’re hoping to shed some light on what some of the difficulties are for these tenants in Alberta.”

Eight students have signed up for the clinic’s first course, which is currently a half-year course offered for credit four hours a week.

Work will start within Calgary, because of the school’s location in the city, “but we understand the issues are similar throughout Alberta,” said Naber-Sykes, a Calgary-based lawyer who has taught trial advocacy courses for the Legal Education Society of Alberta as well as the University of Calgary.

She noted the public interest clinic is unique to Calgary in that it focuses on precedent-setting litigation serving groups of people with a common interest.

“When you’ve been volunteering a lot, you can’t help but notice that there are systemic issues,” added second-year law student Carmen Alvarez Gomez. “This course is an opportunity to be part of making real change.”

The clinic has year-round funding for five years, thanks to a $1-million donation from the Peacock Family Foundation. The gift was arranged by Calgary lawyer Jim Peacock, whose brother’s family created the foundation.

While the clinic’s current focus is on landlord-tenant issues, Naber-Sykes said that may change down the road.

“Our mandate isn’t just housing. Our mandate is the environment, health, wherever we see a systemic issue that adversely affects groups of people,” she said.