Pro bono program helps students give back and gain practical legal experience

Two University of Ottawa law students are currently working to provide government-issued identification to the local homeless population.

The ID Project was founded by Emily Cumbaa and Alexandra Pullano in October 2016 after the pair heard about a similar program over the summer of 2016 that was launched in Toronto.

Cumbaa and Pullano are working on the project through Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC), a national network of law students, lawyers, and community organizations.

“We thought it just sounded fantastic,” said Cumbaa who is in her second year at the U of O’s Faculty of Law. “Something that not only would be beneficial to the community, but also something that really benefited the law students who participated in our program.”

Currently, the ID Project helps provide health cards, birth certificates, SIN cards, and photo ID cards, according to Cumbaa, who notes that simple tasks such as depositing a cheque can be made difficult without proper identification.

“One of the things that people take for granted is the fact that they can easily obtain (ID) and that you’d have it if you ever needed it to access a service.”

However, “if you’re homeless or marginally housed, that’s not the case,” said Cumbaa. “It’s often difficult to obtain one piece of identification if you don’t already have another, and so navigating that system can be quite difficult.”

Cumbaa and Pullano’s duties as co-coordinators involve running a holistic overview of the program’s logistics, as well as taking care of issues that arise within the program.

To get this project off the ground, the pair partnered with the Ottawa chapter of the charitable organization Lawyers Feed the Hungry, as well as with the Ottawa Mission, who agreed to provide them with office space.

The program is also supervised by representatives from Borden Ladner Gervais (BLG), which is the largest full-service Canadian law firm.

The ID Project holds a clinic at the Ottawa Mission on the third and fourth Thursday of every month, which, according to Cumbaa “is open to everyone in the Ottawa community who is homeless or marginally housed.”

Law students and lawyers are present during the drop-in clinic to help clients obtain lost identification, as well as inform those at the Mission about the services offered through the program.

Cumbaa said that this program “felt like a really useful service to provide, and part of the mandate for PBSC is to give back, and provide for individuals in need … at the same time, it’s a great experience for law students.”

According to Cumbaa, this experience gives students like herself a chance to learn the law in a practical way.

“We want to provide them with an out of the classroom experience that shows the power of a legal education, because that’s something we are very privileged to be able to obtain. So we want to be able to give back to people who need it.”

For more information on the ID Project, please visit the PBSC website.