Impact & Advocacy: 45+ years of the Law Centre


L to R: Don McKay (Assistant Director) Caileigh Franco (JD Student), Tybring Hemphill (Clinical Instructor) and Susan Noakes (Staff Social Worker)

By Ivan Watson

When UVic’s Faculty of Law was established in 1975, a driving vision of the new law school was an emphasis on public interest law and providing students experiential learning opportunities to integrate legal theory, legal skills and community service. Two years later, the Law Centre was born as part of that vision and quickly evolved into a robust student clinical law program serving the needs of vulnerable clients in the community, and a national model of excellence in hands-on legal education.

Today, with more than 45 years of service, we look back at the Law Centre’s legacy of impact and advocacy and look forward to its bright future of continuing to lead positive change in the legal landscape of Canada.

From the beginning “purposeful work” has been a hallmark

Law Centre Director Steve Perks has been working at the Law Centre since 1996, for many years as Assistant Director, until becoming Director in 2019, taking the reins from long-time Director Glenn Gallins. The positive working culture since the beginning has fostered an environment where there are many long-term staff members with several years of service committed to the centre’s mission, almost all of whom are UVic alumni.

“It's purposeful work, and rewarding,” says Perks. “People who come to work here often stay here because they have a real affinity for the type of work we do and the clients that we have. The Law Centre offers a combination of practice and teaching as well as services to disadvantaged and marginalized clientele which reflects our team’s strong desire to want to help people. We have experienced lawyers who mentor our students during their term here. That all makes the clinic rather unique in many ways.”

Each year of its existence, the Law Centre has served between 700 and 1,200 low income and vulnerable clients, helping tens of thousands of people since inception. It’s an extraordinary record of achievement that has improved lives locally and has had a systemic impact on promoting social justice in the South Island region and beyond.

For the 14 students each term, totalling 42 every year, who work at the centre, they are nearly all dedicated to the values of public interest law and community service.

“My experience is that it’s been a very self-motivated program. You’re rarely, maybe even never worried about a student pulling their weight here,” says Perks. “The concern here is dampening down working too hard, and maintaining a balance because the students come ready to roll up their sleeves and explore their passion for public interest law and advocacy work.”

The clinic has evolved as the law and community needs have changed

“In the early days we were working on about 60 percent criminal law cases and that percentage has changed over the years with a greater variety of cases in different areas,“ explains Perks. “The history of it is that the clinic has evolved and expanded and developed new expertise. It’s partly in response to demand, and partly in response to where services have fallen away. Another part is how society has changed, and the needs have changed. We have changed accordingly.”

Today’s Law Centre provides advice, assistance, and representation to clients on a wide range of legal issues including criminal matters, family law, human rights complaints, civil disputes, as well as hearings related to employment insurance, welfare, tenancy and landlord disputes and more.

Assisted and mentored by a duty lawyer, students at the centre work on files from start to finish, meeting a client on intake and working with them each step of the way to help resolve their legal issues.

“We serve clients who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford a lawyer, and one of the most important things that students learn, is the tremendous value of the legal services that they are learning to provide,” explains Perks. “They learn that there is a lot of discretion at different stages of the system, so it’s very valuable to have an advocate, and that they can make a tremendous difference in the outcome for the clients.”

Students obtain hands-on legal skills, moving from theory to practice

Grant Morley is a third-year JD student currently completing his clinical term at the Law Centre. He values the opportunity to put into practice the legal knowledge he is learning through his degree, especially in a way that is expanding both his people as well as his technical legal skills and his understanding of different areas of the law.

“I’ve been able to apply the substantive class work that I’ve been learning about in law school, and I’ve been able to apply what I’ve learnt in a practical setting,” he says. “Through my term here, I’ve been able to work on at least one of every type of file and quite a few of multiple files, from meeting with clients through initial intake, understanding what brought them to the clinic and working to see if we can find a solution to their problems. To me those have been the most rewarding aspects—direct engagement with clients and working on different types of files from different areas of the law.”

From day one, Morley has felt supported by a team of experienced, senior lawyers, who provide support, guidance and mentorship, as well as by his team of peers who support each other to succeed during what can be a steep learning curve when they first arrive to work at the clinic.

“I expected to apply the law and to work within the law with my clinical term, and that has definitely been my experience here, but I know that I’ve gained a lot more than that,” he says. “I’ve had the benefit of learning from the perspectives of my colleagues, to grow closer to one another in a collegial setting and to assist each other with problem-solving and learning other aspects of the law. I think that’s one of the top benefits of UVic Law in general, being a bit more skills-based, is that I’ve learned a lot of very good skills in a collaborative way that I will carry forward into my future career.”

From the classroom to the courtroom: preparing students for success in trials, tribunals and hearings

After 23 years as a clinical instructor and supervising lawyer at the Law Centre, Tybring Hemphill still retains a youthful passion for helping law students navigate the challenges—and nerves—of their first courtroom appearance.

“Working with people who are just beginning their careers, it is infectious, and that enables me personally to maintain my enthusiasm,” he says of his role which includes a strong mentorship component for young lawyers who are often making their first anxious foray into the dynamic world of hearings, tribunals and courtroom settings. "One of my biggest hopes for the students is that they will gain a sense of professionalism. I think that’s critically important and a big part of that is understanding and accepting that people are relying on your advice, and you are responsible for the advice you give. You’ve got to own it because real peoples’ lives are affected.”

Hemphill helps students overcome understandable apprehension before first setting foot in court on behalf of their clients.

“It starts with a conversation and often I’ll say, run it by me what you’re going to say, pretend I’m the judge—convince me,” he says.” I work with them to get over that hump of being uncomfortable and helping them get over a fear that things like procedural matters will be too complex. Most of them figure it out quite quickly with that support and do a great job.”

After the experience, Hemphill debriefs with students, offering positive feedback and constructive criticism.

"My practice is as soon as we get back from any hearing, is to sit down with them and review what happened," he explains. “I make sure they get some immediate and useful feedback because that’s the way to crystalize the learning afterwards, otherwise it is incredible how quickly you can forget the fine details of what occurred.”

After more than two decades at the Law Centre, Hemphill is proud of the team’s collective legacy in preparing law students for real-world success. “Anytime I walk into a courtroom today there’s a pretty good chance I’m going to see a former Law Centre student,” he says. “They’re everywhere, and they’re making a huge impact.”

A network of successful alumni and a community of mentors

For Don McKay, who became Assistant Director of the Law Centre in 2022, his return to the clinic represents the culmination of a legal career that began at UVic Law and as a Law Centre student more than 20 years ago. He is one of many Law Centre alumni in the community who nurtured their passion and sharpened their skills in public interest law during their terms at the clinic.

“If you look at our alumni, just about every judge and every lawyer in Victoria on the criminal law side of things has come through the Law Centre,” he says. “I’ve found throughout my career that our alumni are always happy to talk about the Law Centre and to help our students, because every one of them has had a good experience.”

Often, the student’s experience at the clinic helped them to shape their future direction in the early stages of their career.

“Every term, students come through here, they don’t really want to leave, because they’ve gotten a taste of what they signed up to law school for, and they’re taking their theoretical knowledge and practicing law,” says McKay. “They learn their way around a court room or a hearing, how to advocate and to draft claims and applications. They are seeing the benefits of everything they’ve learned being able to be applied, and that helps students who may have come here not really sure about their next steps, to solidify their career plans. Our alumni are attractive candidates for many different legal roles because of the practical experience they gain here.”

McKay recalls how the wide network of Law Centre alumni helped him when he was a young lawyer at the beginning of his career.

“As it turned out, I articled in Toronto with a firm that did both criminal and union-side labour law and after graduating, got a position with a start up criminal defense firm in Toronto,” he says. “To my surprise and delight, their articling student was also a Law Centre graduate, as was one of the senior lawyers who came on a year after me. That was two out of five lawyers in the office who were Law Centre alumni. I tell our students, wherever you go, you are likely to encounter a Law Centre connection.”

A holistic, interdisciplinary and person-centred approach

UVic Alumna Susan Noakes is the Law Centre’s staff social worker, promoting a holistic and compassionate approach in her work with clients and students that integrates both social work and legal services.

“The social work piece is important here because when folks come through our doors it is not necessarily just a legal issue they are bringing,” says Noakes. “For me, a key takeaway for our law students is to learn to look at the whole person and not just the legal issue and to recognize that you can’t necessarily do it all, that there are other professions like counsellors and social workers who can also assist your client to get back on their feet.”

Noakes’ first experience with the Law Centre was through her social work practicum in the summer of 1990. She went on to work at the Law Centre throughout the decade in a variety of roles, including as a board member when it was governed under an association model, before returning to the clinic in her current role 15 years ago.

“Lawyers and social workers both have a goal of justice and a goal of doing right for the client and advocating for the client, sometimes how we get there can be different, but the major thing is trying to work together,” she says, citing the Centre’s interdisciplinary approach in helping law students understand law and society and their ability to navigate complex and sometimes oppressive systems. “I see myself as an educator for our law students, in terms of learning about case management, work-life balance, and providing general support, because for many of our students it can be the first time they are assisting folks experiencing poverty and suffering from very challenging life situations.”

Noakes works to support both students and clients to succeed by taking a compassionate, person-centred approach.

“My role involves working in many areas, including helping folks with disability applications, welfare matters and human rights complaints and tenancy disputes,” she says. “I also provide quite a lot of emotional support for clients and I teach our students to see past the legal matter, to humanise the client and to understand the challenges they are facing. When you look at the whole situation, a tenancy problem is not just a tenancy problem, it involves a person who may be struggling with a number of life factors and we are better able to help them when we understand that context and their individual background.”

A sense of belonging, a drive to create lasting change

For Brittany Goud, supervising lawyer and family law advocate at the Law Centre, it was her student experience at the clinic that helped her understand that her lived experience could support her in becoming a better lawyer and human rights advocate.

“Prior to coming here and having the hands on experience with clients, I had come from circumstances of poverty myself, and I found that the law school experience, separated from practice in the real world was a very discombobulating experience–I didn’t really feel like I ever fit in or belonged,” she says. “When I came to the Law Centre, I had to prepare submissions on a human rights file and I had, because of my lived experience, the right language and understanding, and that’s when that formal lofty part of the law hit the ground and became real for me. I remember feeling that I wanted to be a part of this clinic, I wanted to make sure that rights count for something and it was an overwhelmingly positive and affirming experience for me at the clinic.”

Working with the current generation of Law Centre students, Goud believes it is important to ensure they feel welcomed, validated and supported to achieve their potential.

“I was really young when I came to law school, 22 years old, and I had a difficult time then seeing myself reflected in legal education,” she says. “A massive aspect of my job now is to ease the experience of students who don’t have a ton of privilege when they come here, and one of my favourite things is helping students who may have come from more marginalized backgrounds to rally against the imposter syndrome. I need them to know that they belong, that they are needed and that their perspectives and stories are needed. I try to help them find their voice and footing because I firmly believe that the law needs the perspective of folk that the law is impacting.”

After more than 45 years of service, the Law Centre continues to lead by example, providing exceptional experiential learning opportunities for UVic Law students, helping vulnerable clients resolve their legal issues and creating systemic, lasting and positive change in our society and the Canadian legal landscape.

For more information, please visit: or the UVic Faculty of Law clinic page.

The Law Centre has been able to keep its doors open for more than 45 years thanks in large part to the support of the Law Foundation of British Columbia, which has provided uninterrupted funding every year since 1984, and, more recently, by the friends and alumni of the Faculty of Law through donations.

To donate to the Law Centre, please visit the “Giving to UVic Law” webpage.


 The Law Centre JD Student Team, Summer 2022