Clockwise from top left: Prof. Daphna Lewinsohn-Zamir, Prof. Guy Davidov, Ohad Amar and Vardit Dameri Madar of Hebrew University’s Clinical Legal Education Centre. (photos from cfhu.org)
Five representatives of Hebrew University’s Clinical Legal Education Centre (CLEC) took part in an online discussion about the legal aid the organization offers to disadvantaged individuals and groups.
“It is one of the jewels in our crown. CLEC has taught our students how social responsibility is an important part of the legal profession,” said Daphna Lewinsohn-Zamir, dean of HU’s faculty of law. “And it continues to do exemplary work during the coronavirus pandemic.”
Besides offering professional legal assistance to underprivileged people in Israel, particularly in the Jerusalem area, the centre provides students with hands-on experience. Each clinic, which is comprised of 16 students and includes six hours of field work each week, is overseen by an attorney and an academic advisor.
“The main goal is to demonstrate to students the difference between law in the books and law in action,” said Prof. Guy Davidov, CLEC’s academic director. “It is essential in showing how the law works in real life. We don’t want to be detached from the community in our ivory towers.”
Another key objective of the centre, Davidov said, is to present the potential (and limitations) of the law as a tool for social change, which also is better understood in practice and engagement.
To illustrate the scope of the centre, Vardit Dameri Madar, CLEC’s executive director, told the assembled Zoom audience the story of Hanna, a 32-year-old mother of six children, including one who has mental challenges. Hanna lives in severe poverty and is divorced after having suffered years of physical and mental abuse. She survives on minimum income benefits.
Just as the coronavirus struck, Hanna had her benefits stopped, said Dameri Madar. In spite of the pandemic forcing people to stay in isolation, the country’s housing department demanded that Hanna come to its offices in person to fill out the necessary documents to receive her benefits.
“Unlike a TV show such as LA Law, problems do not get resolved in the time it takes to watch an episode,” Dameri Madar explained. “In real life, it takes a long time to get a response from the housing department.”
After sending letters to the department and raising the issue in the media of Hanna’s possible eviction, a precarious circumstance shared by thousands of Israelis as the virus started, CLEC was able to make a difference – the housing department relented and allowed people to fill in their applications online.
CLEC handles 600 cases per year. The centre aims to address policy changes that affect broader populations; it initiates 35 to 40 policy change projects a year through tests cases, position papers, shadow reports, draft legislation and alternative models. CLEC also organizes about 90 lectures per year for the general population, as well as for specific groups, such as youth, single mothers and social workers.
This coming year, CLEC will run eight clinics, on the topics of at-risk youth, international human rights, marginalized communities, disability rights, criminal justice, the wrongfully accused, multiculturalism and women’s economic empowerment.
CLEC, too, has formed a Corona Crisis Program that manages existing cases related to poverty with responses in “real time”; provides Social Justice Operations Rooms on Facebook, with legal aid available in Hebrew and Arabic; and promotes policy changes stemming from the Facebook room and clinical activities.
“We decided that Facebook was a good tool to help answer people’s questions at a time when the rules were in flux,” said Ohad Amar, the lecturer at CLEC who started the Facebook groups.
From the Facebook groups, the public has easy access to specialized aid from attorneys, students and volunteers. To date, its 60 volunteers have helped more than 1,500 people.
Ariel Elkayam, a second-year law student, said “this is the best thing that happened to me with my studying here. I am so lucky to get to do this work. With the centre, you do teamwork. It really gives you a sense of belonging.”
Elkayam’s recent work with CLEC has been advocating for at-risk youth who have been fined and arrested for being out on the streets with nowhere to go during the COVID crisis – at a time when Israeli law enforcement has been clamping down on homelessness.
Every year, approximately 140 students are accepted to the CLEC clinics. For more information, visit openscholar.huji.ac.il/clinicallecen/book/clec-experience-assistance-impact-law-students.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.