IWK program provides pro bono legal services to families in need

A little-known program at the IWK Health Centre provides pro bono legal assistance to some families of patients at the hospital.

The hospital has partnered with the Legal Information Society of Nova Scotia and the Halifax law firm McInnes Cooper to create the IWK Family Legal Health Program.

Some of the types of law that they've encountered through this program include labour and employment issues, immigration law and access to government programs.

'We needed some support'

Jackie Pidduck, a social worker at the IWK, told CBC's Mainstreet that she often comes across legal issues at the hospital.

As social workers, she said she and her colleagues knew there must be ways to support these families, but they didn't have the legal expertise to help.

"I think in relation to housing laws and also around immigration, we needed some support to be able to provide better care to the families that we serve," said Pidduck.​

Andrea Hewitt, the collective social responsibility co-ordinator at McInnes Cooper, said the firm created a formal pro bono program six years ago.

They were in the process of creating partnerships with organizations when they reached out to the IWK. The relationship with the hospital began in 2015.

"We thought, 'What a great opportunity for us to utilize our skills and our resources to help families in the community,'" said Hewitt.

Rewarding work

Hewitt said the firm started getting meaningful files and assigning them to lawyers who were excited by the opportunity.

One of the examples, said Hewitt, is when they worked with a family visiting from another country. The mother had children with her and was pregnant.

The woman had a high-risk pregnancy and was unable to leave Canada. A lawyer from the firm was able to get visas extended for the family members to enable the mother to remain in Halifax and have her child at the IWK.

Pidduck said legal matters can become sources of significant worry and having assistance with them can actually help the clients with their health.

"When patients and families actually feel like someone is on their side, that they have advocacy, that they know their rights, sometimes that piece of control over your situation also helps your health," said Pidduck.

The program has limitations. For example, it is unable to assist with criminal law — but clients can be referred to where they can get help.

Many doctors and IWK staff didn't know the program existed until recently.

Pidduck said the group spoke with the doctors, residents and other staff at the IWK recently. Many were unaware of the program.

The program has helped with more than 55 legal issues, worth $200,000 in services.

Hewitt said other law firms and lawyers have been assisting and they are looking for more to join in the effort.

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