PBSC QUEEN'S INTERVIEW WITH
PROFESSOR NICHOLAS (NICK) BALA
PBSC QUEEN'S I KATIE LING I PROGRAM COORDINATOR I JULY 14, 2016
ON HELPING PEOPLE
There are many reasons for people to go to law school or to become lawyers. You may want to help change social policy through constitutional litigation. You may want to help the family rights of individuals who are being prosecuted by the state, or to prosecute individuals who are violating the rules of society. You may want to help businesses run more efficiently and effectively and to make better deals.
But for people who are interested in helping others, I think that family law is one of the most human and interesting areas of the law.
ON FAMILY LAW
Family law is a very interesting area that combines both legal and human elements. It is a field in which lawyers and law students can make a significant difference in the lives of individual clients.
Family law has changed enormously as society has changed. Over the course of my professional life, we have seen many changes in the law, changes in the social services that are combined with the justice system, and changes in the role of family lawyers.
Family law deals with individuals in a state of crisis, or emotional and family transition in domestic and child protection areas. Good family lawyers are helping clients with legal issues ranging from domestic violence, economic issues, and parenting issues, while also helping them, and their children, transition to a different life stage.
ON ACCESS TO JUSTICE AND THE FAMILY LAW LITIGANT SURVEY PROJECT
Family law is paradigmatically an area where there are access to justice concerns. That is why PBSC, among other agencies, has a very important role in trying to address issues to access to justice as the costs of legal services have increased. Legal Aid funding has not kept pace with the growing needs of individuals. There has been a very significant increase in self-represented litigants.
The students who are involved in the Family Law Litigant Survey project are doing work to help increase understanding of the differences between self-represented litigants and those who have lawyers. Students study the experience of these two groups in the family courts, and why they don’t have lawyers. These students are participating in the study of access to family justice problems, and will ultimately contribute to improvements in how the justice system deals with family cases.
I feel incredibly privileged in my career. I enjoy interacting with students, I enjoy teaching, and I enjoy the research. I don’t practice family law, but I frequently interact with people who do. I read cases and articles, and I am also involved in social science research about the family justice system.
While much of my scholarship is traditional legal scholarship that involves analysis of cases and legislation, a significant part involves interviewing people: litigants, lawyers, people without lawyers, and judges. The core of my research is asking them how the justice system is operating, and studying how we can ultimately improve outcomes for families.
There is a policy side, studying how judges and lawyers can do a better job of dealing with these cases in a broad sense. It is important to improve the interaction between social science knowledge research and family justice system.
ON EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING
When I was a Queen’s Law student from ‘74 to ‘77, PBSC did not exist. The student Legal Aid Society did family law at the time. When I was a student, I was involved in what would today be called the PBSC Family Law Project, administered in a different way. I did a lot of work on the project in both summers and during the school year.
It was a great educational experience. It enriched my studies; it helped me to better understand what was happening in class, and allowed me to begin to develop important professional skills. I would certainly encourage students to be involved in PBSC or one of the clinics if they want to enrich their understanding of the law.
ON PRO BONO CULTURE
PBSC plays a valuable local and national role. It is widely recognized that students play a very valuable role in improving access to justice. PBSC’s work has been supported by the legal profession, major law firms, companies like Westlaw, and individual donors. It is important for students to be aware that pro bono work has a place in the profession as well.
ON PBSC & OTHER ACCESS TO JUSTICE ORGANIZATIONS
I think the key is for access to justice organizations to break down barriers and improve collaboration.
There are people who at different points in their careers will do more Legal Aid work, and others more Pro Bono work. People broadly recognize that they have similar objectives but different functions. They are both important, valuable contributions.
There is a need to improve the linkages between programs. It varies between the law schools. We have very good integration here at Queen’s and in Kingston on the family side. For example, the fact that Karla McGrath is responsible for supervising both the PBSC Family Law Project and the Queen’s Family Law Clinic is ideal. To me, that is a model for the rest of Ontario.
ON LAW STUDENTS
It is important for law students to recognize that they have a privilege and an obligation to give back to those who are disadvantaged in society. They must recognize that it is not only socially rewarding, but also professionally valuable.
ON THE QUEEN'S LAW COMMUNITY
There has been a lot of change in legal education, the justice system, and society since I came to Queen’s as a student in 1974. Many of these changes have been related to technology and globalization in a broad sense. But I think that the core of this law school and some of its values, both in terms of how students are treated and their sense of community and support, have remained.
I like the Queen’s Law slogan: academic excellence and community. I think that Queen’s Law offers a more supportive environment that is more collegial for the students. This is important because students go to law school and think that their role is to be advocates and adversarial.
It is true that there is a strong role for being adversarial at times. There are also times for working with your colleagues. Wherever you are, whether in a firm or the government, you are likely to be working in a team. Even when you are in an adversarial relationship, it is important to recognize that there is a role to work with each other and opposing counsel. For example, to recognize the value for litigants of settling cases, and to work with others to develop these settlements. One of the problems of self-representation is that those who represent themselves are less likely to settle a case. An important way to learn to work with other people is to actually do it.
There are many opportunities for law students to work together. When I was in law school, many of my fellow students would make copies of my notes and ask me questions. “Nicky Notes” weren’t so much about the notes themselves, it was more that I was collaborating with my classmates and learning from that. Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, my being asked questions gave me the opportunity to articulate what I was learning.
I think that learning from each other is very important. In some law schools, students come in, take their notes, and take off. At Queen’s Law, we are in an environment where students are interacting positively with their colleagues, as well as the faculty. Working together at law school is good preparation for what you are likely to do in a firm. As in law school, there is a certain degree of competition within a firm. Just as everyone writing for exams is trying to achieve the best grade, but they are also working with each other to better understand the material and to work with their peers to better their own knowledge and skill preparation.
ON ADVICE TO LAW STUDENTS
The path ahead is harder to discern than the path back. Make one decision at a time.
Try to remember why you are here, on a career level. Why you came may be different from what you feel now. Listen to what your heart is saying, not what everyone else is doing.
Think of what your gifts and strengths are, what the world’s needs are, and how they intersect. That will be your calling.