Correction law: The forgotten sibling of the criminal defence bar

  • December 04, 2020
  • Murray Fallis

Correctional law is the oft-forgotten sibling of the criminal defence bar. You don’t learn about the field in your 1L crim class and you certainly don’t explore its seminal precedents in administrative law. May v Ferndale isn’t exactly your Vavilov or your Keegstra. The field takes a back seat.

Indeed, those who practice correctional law know the agony of explaining their role to others: “No, I’m not re-trying their crimes, I’m ensuring respect for their rights while they’re incarcerated.”

For many law students, correctional law may seem like a thankless task. Why would anybody want to work with federal prisoners?

However, three facets of the field should pique every student’s interest: opportunities, impacts and growth. And the field is anything but thankless.

First, as a young law student entering the legal profession, the opportunities to represent clients are few and far between. Only in some idyllic dream would a law student ever actually represent a client. Yet in the correctional field, this is not just real or encouraged, it is needed. In the past few years, due to a reduction in legal aid funding, federal prisoners have received diminished legal assistance. In many cases, law school prison clinics are the only options left. In these circumstances, law students have the opportunity to represent a prisoner at a parole hearing or advocate for them as a patient advocate when they receive healthcare services.

Second, correctional law allows you to make a real difference. Many federal prisoners are from racialized or disadvantaged communities. Often, this population of prisoners lacks legal assistance while incarcerated. For them, having a law student assist at a disciplinary hearing or parole review is an unbelievable asset.

For example, if a prisoner is convicted of a serious disciplinary offence while incarcerated — like making alcohol (brew) or showing disrespect to a correctional officer — their chances for release are diminished. Since 2018, legal aid duty counsels no longer attend serious disciplinary court hearings in Ontario due to significant reductions in funding. Federal prisoners are often left with no legal advice — a void law students can fill. Your assistance at a disciplinary hearing can be the difference between an individual’s eventual freedom or longer incarceration — their liberty is partially in your hands.

Finally, the correctional law field is an opportunity for growth, as it offers unparalleled opportunities to learn new things by exposing law students to a variety of different legal areas at once — laws of evidence, administrative law, judicial reviews, etc. On a deeper, more personal level, it allows an individual to witness inequity first-hand. Hearing the personal struggles of federal prisoners, their battles against racism, discrimination, mental health struggles and poverty, is absolutely heartbreaking but also inspiring. To these individuals, small victories matter.

As Catherine Latimer, Executive Director of the John Howard Society of Canada notes: “Decades ago, my participation as a law student in the Queen’s Correctional Law Project, as it was then called, shaped the trajectory of my career. The need is great and so are the rewards. If you care about ensuring that the rule of law and Charter rights apply to some of the most disadvantaged, disliked and marginalized members of our society, correctional law is the place for you.”

The field is growing as more and more entities seek to support the rights of the racialized, marginalized and disadvantaged, from the development of prisoner legal services on the West Coast to the broadening of the Dalhousie Prison Law Society to the decades-long expansion of the Queen’s Prison Law Clinic. This year, the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law developed its first Correctional Law Association. Demand for correctional lawyers has never seemed higher.

The boardroom might be a cafeteria, the coffee might be instant, and the client’s suit might be orange, but correctional law offers unparalleled opportunities for young law students hoping to represent, make a difference and grow, both personally and professionally. If you want to see the impact of our Charter, our Constitution and our laws everywhere including behind bars, there is no better place to be.

Murray Fallis is an Articling Fellow with the John Howard Society of Canada. He is 100% biased in regards to this issue.