UNB law clinic helps people in trans, gender-diverse communities change their names
Free program expands to all of Atlantic Canada
Within two days of its launch in this academic year, a trans and gender-diverse free legal clinic at University of New Brunswick had filled all of its appointments.
Hosted through the Pro Bono Students Canada chapter at UNB's law faculty, the Imprint Trans ID Clinic uses law student volunteers and lawyers from the firm of McInnes Cooper to offer free legal help to people changing their names or gender markers on government documents.
"Seeing that within a matter of 48 hours all the spots have filled up, that just reassures us that okay, what we're doing is right," said Frances Borgmann, a second-year law student who helped coordinate the program this year.
The clinic has been operating for a number of years, but formally expanded this year to offer help for residents in all of Atlantic Canada.
It was only offered in-person to New Brunswick residents in previous years, but became virtual last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That led to interest from residents in other provinces, so Borgmann worked on formalizing the expansion this year and creating an official partnership with McInnes Cooper, whose lawyers were already involved with the clinic.
She also established a training process for the lawyers and students to make sure they were familiar with the name-changing procedures in each Atlantic province.
This semester, five lawyers and four law students are participating, offering 22 appointments in February and March.
Ash Arsenault, a graduating UNB law student and one of the program's coordinators, said this is the first time in his three years of volunteering at the clinic that all the appointments have been filled.
"I do find it very rewarding because a lot of the clients who come in are kind of very uneasy and they're intimidated and they feel like they're in over their heads because the process isn't always straight forward," he said.
Filling out the paperwork
When Amber Chisholm was a law student at UNB, she ran workshops on gender transition for the local transgender support group. She'd bring the paperwork, go over it with people, and offer basic legal information.
She continued offering that service for whoever contacted her after she graduated in 2016, notarizing documents for free.
Then, UNB law students reached out to her about the idea of creating the Trans Identification clinic. Now one of the supervising lawyers volunteering at the clinic, Chisholm said the response has been overwhelming.
"I don't really know what I expected when we first started this project, but we've been consistently booking every single appointment that we're offering for people, so there's clearly a demand for people to get helpful and affirming legal information about how to navigate this process," she said.
Chisholm now works at the non-profit organization Public Legal Education and Information Service of New Brunswick.
She's also one of the founding members of Imprint Youth Association in Fredericton, an organization for LGBTQIA+ youth and young adults in the capital region.
It's responsible for the city's annual LGBTQIA+ prom and helps youth access gender-affirming materials like binders and makeup.
Theoretically, Chisholm said changing the name and the gender mark on legal documents is as simple as filling out the paperwork. But she said there are factors that can lengthen or complicate the process.
A person will need their birth certificate, and a sponsor who has known them for at least two years and can confirm who they are.
In some cases, the applicant will also need a criminal record check, which can take a couple of weeks or longer, depending on where they live in New Brunswick.
If someone was born in another province, the process can get more complicated.
The name-changing process usually costs about $150. If all goes well, Service New Brunswick can usually send out the name-change certificate in about a month.
"What the clinic is there to do is to help people navigate through that paperwork, which can be a little confusing and overwhelming if you're not used to navigating legal languages or official documents," Chisholm said.