Legal aid in the works for UMSU members

Current UMSU executives are making good on campaign promises made during last year’s election by taking steps toward creating a legal aid program accessible to all UMSU members.

UMSU is considering taking up legal aid services from Studentcare — the firm which provides health, dental and vision coverage for students at U of M — at a potential cost to members of $9.33 per semester. Students will also have the option to opt-out of the program if it is adopted.

According to the Studentcare website, the coverage would include legal services in the areas of tenant disputes, employment rights and academic rights as well as access to legal advice on any topic over the phone.

UMSU vice-president advocacy Kristin Smith said that although past executives have identified legal aid for UMSU members as a need, the union currently “falls behind” in terms of what legal services are available when compared with others across the country.

“Legal assistance is something you don’t realize you need until you need it,” she said. “I think a student union is the appropriate body to provide that service to students.”

Before being implemented, UMSU expects to first conduct a survey of the student population to gauge interest in such a program before finally putting the decision to a vote in a later referendum.

The results of preliminary research conducted by UMSU on the question revealed that some of the main areas students at U of M seek legal aid in are immigration, tenant disputes, employment disputes and alcohol-related infractions.

“As well, I think a good part of this program is it provides a resource for students to understand their rights as it pertains to instances of sexual violence apart from having to approach a university office,” Smith said.

Initially, UMSU was exploring the possibility of establishing an “arm” of the Legal Help Centre — a Winnipeg-based non-profit organization which aims to assist people in need in representing themselves legally — available to students at the U of M which would provide legal services to students in exchange for monetary contributions from UMSU.

UMSU was in the process of developing a proposal to the Legal Help Centre which would have included logistically how implementation would take place, what monetary contributions UMSU could make and trying to make the case that students fall under the centre’s mandate.

“Of course, that is very resource-intensive [for] UMSU but I saw that as being completely worth it,” said Smith.

She explained that the option was explored out of a desire on the part of UMSU to find a way to implement legal aid to students without charging additional fees.

“I thought, ‘I don’t want to put another fee on the back of students during COVID-19, I don’t want to do this with the backdrop of Bill 33, is there a way that UMSU could […] just invest and fund such a program through our own means?’” said Smith at the Jan. 29 UMSU board meeting.

“With things changing in the winter and realizing how much work it would take to get something like this off the ground […] I thought we might as well put the question to students,” Smith subsequently said, referring to plans to gauge interest through a survey.

Smith also argued that beyond the immediate benefits of offering legal services to those that need them, the introduction of legal services for UMSU members could help drive “innovation.”

“A lot of students have ideas for start-up businesses and they have questions pertaining to the legalities of […] making that legitimate,” she said.

“If we’re able to provide a service that could provide legal advice on that, we’re going to get students more willing to pursue those passions as well.”