Paralegal Amanda Bitton is proud to be a full-time advocate for refugee claimants
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Licensed paralegal Amanda Bitton has been "excited, proud and nervous” ever since Rexdale Community Legal Centre hired her in July to support refugee claimants on a full-time basis.
She’s very aware that her new job — providing frontline services to these vulnerable clients — is part of a Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) pilot agreement to fund the cost of hiring her, and demonstrate LAO’s commitment to the appropriate use of licensed paralegals.
So she sometimes loses sleep thinking of the responsibility she’s taken on.
High quality services are paramount
“As a regulated professional who must meet the licensing requirements of the Law Society of Upper Canada, this is an important opportunity to demonstrate that my experience, training and ethics will result in high quality services. That’s what will be paramount,” she says. “The stakes are high for me because everybody is watching. But my main concern is that they are even higher for my clients.”
Amanda’s education includes a four-year degree in political science at McMaster University. However, she actually started working at the Rexdale Community Legal Clinic while she was still a student of Humber College’s two-year Paralegal Education program, from which she graduated in June 2012.
Amanda applied to the Rexdale Community Legal Centre while she was still at Humber, to provide her with work hours toward the mandatory 14-week paid work term that’s part of Humber’s licensing requirements for students in this diploma program.
She hearts Rexdale
Her work placement at Rexdale, followed by employment there between August 2012 and January 2013, gave her experience in helping out at reception and attending intakes, hearings and interviews.
“By the end of that placement, I knew there was nowhere else I wanted to work,” she says. “I just love this clinics’ underlying philosophy of trusting colleagues and clients to come up with the most effective resolutions through working together in collaboration.”
What appealed to her most? “Clients would come in, throw a bunch of papers they couldn’t make sense of onto the desk, and ask for assistance,” she explains. “I loved being able to help people determine which issues they needed to deal with to move forward, to represent them before administrative tribunals such as the Landlord and Tenant Board, and to see them walk away and feel a bit easier about their lives.”
Amanda kept coming in as a volunteer once her paid placement at Rexdale was over, and cheerfully took on even the most basic tasks. When the prospect of applying for the refugee pilot arose, she began studying the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, signed up for training on refugee law, began attending conferences on the subject, and asked to job-shadow LAO’s refugee lawyers.
Passion, a positive attitude and an astute legal mind
“We hired her because of her passion, positive attitude, commitment to our clients and incredibly astute legal mind,” recalls LAO’s Jayne Mallin, who headed up Rexdale’s legal clinic at the time.
“We had recognized very early on in Amanda’s placement, through her handling of intake and while assisting with research and factum writing – where her legal analysis was always accurate, thoughtful, and solution focused – that she is a very high quality paralegal.”
Today Amanda’s responsibilities include interviewing refugee claimants, helping them fill in the forms they need to complete to apply for refugee status in Canada, and representing these vulnerable individuals, under the supervision of a lawyer, at the Refugee Protection Division (RPD) of Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB).
“If my Mom had known about what community legal clinics could do for families like ours, if we’d had someone advocating for us like I can advocate for my clients, she would have had fewer struggles,”
Advocacy, accessibility and affordability
An LAO staff lawyer and LAO’s district office staff review Amanda’s paperwork once it’s completed. While Amanda is qualified to appear on her own before the RPD, an LAO lawyer will accompany her to hearings for the first six months of the pilot. This interim measure will ensure that clients are receiving high quality services and provide her with further training.
She’s pleased to be on a career path that goes back to her childhood in a single parent family. “If my Mom had known about what community legal clinics could do for families like ours, if we’d had someone advocating for us like I can advocate for my clients, she would have had fewer struggles,” she says.
“It’s all about accessibility and affordability,” she adds. “Sometimes only a lawyer can do the job. But we are a more affordable alternative in situations where a paralegal is qualified to do the same job. Here at Rexdale, I can provide quality legal services within my scope of practice for refugees whose very lives could depend on their ability to access resources and justice in a meaningful way.”
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