Calgary

Calgary law school launches free legal service for Albertans facing debt crunch

A new program launched this month by a group associated with the law school at the University of Calgary is offering free legal help for Albertans who are facing mounting debt and looming foreclosures.

Consumer Debt Negotiation Project offers services of retired lawyers, law students

Christine Laing, executive director of the Public Interest Law Clinic at the University of Calgary, says the new Consumer Debt Negotiation Project is meant to help Albertans who cannot afford lawyers as they struggle with legal issues related to their financial obligations. (Christine Laing)

A new program launched this month by a group associated with the law school at the University of Calgary is offering free legal help for Albertans who are facing mounting debt and looming foreclosures.

Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the long-running slump in the energy sector, Albertans have been hit hard financially.

Many don't know what options they have when it comes to tackling their mounting debt. 

The Consumer Debt Negotiation Project is designed to help address that problem, says Christine Laing, executive director of the U of C's Public Interest Law Clinic.

"Debtors get frozen when they are faced with legal action or faced with having to make choices about their debt. And they often can't afford a lawyer or don't know to go to a lawyer — or bury their heads in the sand until it's too late," she said.

"I think we're all a little bit 'deer in the headlights' when a crisis strikes. So many of us had jobs, had plans, and then were blindsided by these things coming."

Laing said financial institutions seem to be holding off for now, but she expects many people will find they need legal advice in the new year.

"It's probable that personal foreclosures are going to start to happen after business loans are called in January," she said.

The organizers are assembling a roster of volunteers — including active lawyers as well as recently retired lawyers and judges — who will provide free legal services to Alberta debtors who might be facing bankruptcy or foreclosure.

The project is part of a teaching program at the university, so clients will get legal advice from trained lawyers with expertise in foreclosure law, but law students will also take part in the process.

"Basically we've been building a firm from scratch behind the scenes to start pairing volunteer lawyers with Alberta debtors that will need help," Laing said.

Recently retired lawyer Helen Rees, who is volunteering with the U of C's Consumer Debt Negotiation Project, says the unfortunate reality is that many people facing legal issues related to debt cannot afford a lawyer. (Helen Rees)

Retired lawyer Helen Rees, who is one of about a dozen volunteers signed up so far, says the unfortunate reality is that many people facing legal proceedings related to debt cannot afford to hire a lawyer.

"I would like to know that people who actually do have some options have at least received some advice so that they're able to explore those options and not find that they go through a process unnecessarily," she said.

"So that's where the public interest law group is going to fill in that gap and try to provide that advice to people so that they can access it at a time when they may actually still have some options."

The clinic is also collaborating with Pro Bono Law Alberta's ongoing duty counsel and amicus programs as well as Calgary Legal Guidance's summary advice clinics to help prospective clients get the help they need.

Albertans can find out if they qualify for the program by visiting the Consumer Debt Negotiation Project website.

With files from Lucie Edwardson.

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