CLAS’s roots go back to the late 1960’s when a group of students, including law students, received government funding to facilitate community-based organizations in dealing with the social issues of the inner core of Vancouver. The project was to last for only one summer, but it expanded into a full-time program known as the Inner City Project and ran up until 1971. The Vancouver Community Legal Assistance Society (“VCLAS”) evolved from the law student group and was incorporated as a Society in 1971.
Mike Harcourt, who later became Mayor of Vancouver and Premier of BC, was the founder and first Executive Director of VCLAS. Ian Waddell, who later became a BC MLA and a Federal MP, was the second Executive Director. VCLAS started with 6 staff members, and an annual operating budget of under $160,000. The office was located at 257 East 11th Avenue in Vancouver.
The Community Law Program (CLP) was the first program of VCLAS, specializing in poverty law matters. CLAS also supervised the legal work of the Law Students’ Legal Advice Program (LSLAP), located at the UBC Law School, by providing a supervising lawyer and administrative assistant to LSLAP until 2012. The initial funding for VCLAS included a number of small grants from various sources, including a grant from the newly established Law Foundation of BC, who continues to be one of our major funders.
Today CLAS assists thousands of people each year with issues relating to housing, income security, workers’ rights, mental health, and human rights. We provide legal assistance to marginalized people throughout BC in the areas of housing, income security, workers’ rights, mental health, and human rights, offering full legal representation for cases, including test cases and Charter litigation; summary advice; assistance to self-represented litigants; law reform initiatives; support and training for community groups and lay advocates in the province, and referrals to other agencies. CLAS engages with a network of community groups with strong partnerships on critical legal issues.
50 Years Fighting for Justice
IncorporationOn March 29, 1971, CLAS was incorporated as the Vancouver Community Legal Assistance Society (“VCLAS”) operating the first Community Law Program (CLP) established in BC.
Mental Health Law Program
The Mental Health Law Program (MHLP) created, providing services under the mental health provisions of the Criminal Code with a staff of 2 lawyers and a legal assistant. The program was located in offices on the Riverview Hospital grounds. The Legal Services Society of BC (LSS), then known as the Legal Services Commission, became and continues to be the primary funder of MHLP.
Disability Law Program
The Disability Law Program (DLP) was created, with 1 lawyer and 1 support staff. DLP later amalgamated with CLP.
VCLAS moves to 1128 Hornby Street in Vancouver.
VCLAS changes its name to the Community Legal Assistance Society (“CLAS”) to reflect that services were extending beyond Vancouver to the rest of British Columbia.
CLAS office relocates to house growing staff numbers, 13 at this time, to 1281 West Georgia Street in Vancouver, while MHLP remained on the Riverview Hospital grounds.
Major expansion of MHLP
Major expansion of MHLP which expands considerably to provide services relating to the Mental Health Act. 9 new staff are employed by MHLP, with an additional lawyer working with MHLP Criminal Code hearings. This increases CLAS staff from 13 to 23.
In February, devastating news of a province-wide funding cut to all LSS funded organizations, including the closure of over 50 community law offices throughout BC, and the elimination of all LSS funding to CLAS. The impact to CLAS was an annual funding loss of $812,000 effective August 2002. We recovered by working with our funders to realign and sign new contracts.
In July, the BC Human Rights Commission was disbanded and the current direct access model for human rights complaints was established. The Ministry then began its funding to CLAS for the BC Human Rights Clinic, which we operated in partnership with the BC Human Rights Coalition. By the end of the 2002/2003 fiscal year, our staff of 23 had increased to 32.
Office space doubled for our growing staff by moving from West Georgia Street to our current location at 1140 West Pender Street. This office space continues to be provided to CLAS through a sub-lease with the City of Vancouver under its Bonus Amenities program, which provides office space to non-profit organizations at a significantly reduced cost.
MHLP staff relocate from offices on the Riverview Hospital grounds to our downtown office, as Riverview Hospital had plans to close by 2007.
Received increased funding for a new Poverty Law Services Project, staffed by one lawyer and one support staff.
Received what has since become permanent funding for an Articling Fellowship, which allowed us to hire an articling student each year. The Fellowship became the “David Mossop, QC, Public Interest Articling Fellowship”, in recognition of David Mossop, who has been a lawyer with CLAS from 1971 to 2011, and who still remains with CLAS as a legal advocate.
Poverty Law Services
The Poverty Law Services Project was expanded by two more lawyers and the requisite support staff. This brought our staffing level to 37.
Late 2008 marked the beginning of a global economic recession that impacted CLAS for the next decade and beyond.
Community Advocate Support Line
The Community Advocate Support Line (CASL) is transferred from LSS to being operated under the CLAS umbrella.
A significant funding cut from the Law Foundation, and, to a lesser degree, from the Ministry of Attorney General, resulted in a reduction to 31 staff. To keep operating, we reduced the salaries of senior lawyers, restructured staff positions and we used funds from limited reserves. We could not (and still cannot) provide annual cost of living increases to staff.
BC Human Rights Coalition Merger
Our partner organization, the BC Human Rights Coalition, merges with CLAS, and since April 2015 the BC Human Rights Clinic has operated under the management of CLAS. Seven of the Coalition’s staff joined CLAS and the Coalition’s budget of $540,000 was also transferred to CLAS with our staff growing to 38.
Demand for Representation
LSS conducted a review of our Mental Health Law Program to address the ongoing increase demand for representation for persons detained under the Mental Health Act in or through psychiatric facilities throughout the province. As a result of the review, LSS provided funding to us to develop a roster of ad hoc lawyers with whom we now contract to provide services, and we also received a small funding increase for more staff. Our LSS funding increased by almost $330,000 between 2016 and 2018, and this has allowed us respond to over 90% of the demand for representation throughout the province.
With the LSS funding increases and a funding boost from the Law Foundation, we reach a staffing level of over 40 staff and an operating budget of over $3.8 million.
The Department of Justice Canada (DOJ) approves funding of $2.3 million for a 4.5-Year project to provide province-wide legal advice, ancillary referrals and educational services to persons alleging Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (SHARP Workplaces) in partnership with the Ending Violence Association of BC (EVABC). 5 staff to be hired bring the number of CLAS staff to 45 and our annual operating budget to over $4 million by early 2020.
29th March 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of CLAS.