The opening of the first new Faculty of Law in Ontario in more than 40 years took place in Thunder Bay on Tuesday.
About 300 people attended the opening of Lakehead University's law school, in the gymnasium of the former Port Arthur Collegiate Institute.
Faculty members and the inaugural class of 60 students filed in during a procession that was headed by a pipe and drum band.
Lakehead President Brian Stevenson gave a nod to MPPs Michael Gravelle and Bill Mauro for pushing for the law school over the years, while Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne made a joking reference to those efforts, saying the Thunder Bay members had been an irritant at Queen's Park.
The law school means that relief will soon come for people seeking legal counsel in northwestern Ontario, said the president of the Thunder Bay Law Association.
Chris Hacio said there are more people who need lawyers than there are lawyers to represent them.
"I think it's resulted in a lot of lawyers being a lot busier than they'd like to be," he said.
"[And] a lot of clients are not getting serviced appropriately. So, there are clients that have good cases that simply can't find lawyers, because lawyers are just too busy."
Helping First Nations clients
Hacio said he hopes students of the law program will stay in Thunder Bay after they finish their education — and feels there's a good chance they will, as many come from the north.
"Every time a fairly senior lawyer with a significant practice retires, that work gets spread over the city and that increases the volume for everyone," Hacio added. "Maybe 10 years ago, in my practice, I turned away the odd case. Now, it's become more prevalent for me to turn away cases than take cases. I'm certainly turning away far more than I'm taking on right now."
Hacio said the situation is frustrating.
"You have people [who] live in northwestern Ontario [who] aren't able to get serviced by lawyers living in northwestern Ontario, so they either don't pursue their legal matter or go outside the city to get legal services."
One group of people in the region who are particularly under-serviced are aboriginals, Hacio noted. He said he hopes having the law school in Thunder Bay will address that gap, because students will have the opportunity to specialize in aboriginal law.
More graduates with this specialty might also address the high number of aboriginal people who are in area jails.
"First Nations individuals that are incarcerated and charged with criminal offenses will have a better chance to obtain legal representation," Hacio said.
"I think most of them eventually obtain some kind of legal representation, but the question is, 'Can they do it in a timely basis?' I think it probably takes them longer to obtain the services of a criminal lawyer now because of the shortage of criminal lawyers in northwestern Ontario."