Sitting in to standing up: How the Student Legal Fund Society was created to defend students

It all started with a sit-in.

Tuition was on the rise, provincial tuition caps were being ignored, and students were frustrated in the spring of 1997. Thirty students crowded into then-UBC President David Strangway’s office while he was in a Board of Governors (BoG) meeting. During a lunch rally, cries of “Strangway strangles students’ voices by not ensuring due process'' could be heard.

The sit-in turned into a lawsuit that was successful in challenging this tuition increase — but legal action is expensive, especially when you’re a student. This victory highlighted more than the potential for student-driven legal action — it revealed a need to make it more accessible and give students the means to stand up.

To address this, the Student Legal Fund Society (SLFS) was born. But today, students and the AMS say its governance practices are unclear, and there are still arguments about what its mandate is. For a fund that oversees approximately $700,000 of student money, that's an issue.

SLFS is a non-profit, student-run organization founded to support student litigation and advocacy. SLFS oversees a fund that students have paid a $1 fee into every year since its creation by referendum in 1998.

But the SLFS story doesn’t begin with that referendum.

Published March 21, 1997.
Published March 21, 1997. The Ubyssey

The sit-in that began it all

It was March 20, 1997. The BoG had previously approved a 310 per cent increase to international tuition and were proposing a $135 fee increase to domestic students' auxiliary fees — as UBC couldn’t raise domestic tuition at the time due to a provincial-wide tuition freeze. The BoG was set to approve the auxiliary fee at that day's meeting.

As the BoG meeting began at 8 a.m., a group of around 30 students forced their way into then-UBC President David Strangway’s office with a list of demands in hand. The group, comprised mainly of graduate students, asked the BoG to roll back the increase to international student fees and not approve the increase of the auxiliary fee.

Other students continued the demonstration outside the president's office and where the BoG was meeting. The BoG ended up putting some of the auxiliary fees up to a student referendum.

But the international student fees remained, and so did the demonstration. Eight students stayed camped inside the president's office for six nights while others camped outside in what was referred to as “Camp David.”

Amir Attaran, a then-law student but not an active participant in the protest, remembered dropping by and seeing students pass pizzas and other necessities through the windows of the president's office to support the students inside.

But on the seventh day, they left with the international student fee increase still in place and some of the auxiliary fees approved.

“When after a week, the students left the office … I felt badly for them,” said Attaran. But he had an idea of how he could help.

Let's just sue ‘em

After the protest was unsuccessful, Attaran proposed to the student organizers that they sue the university over the fee and tuition increases. He didn’t have a law license yet, but he figured he could work it out.

“[Attaran] and a couple others were pretty instrumental in saying [UBC] didn't follow the proper policy and procedure for raising fees,” said Michael Hughes, who was a BoG representative at the time and a sit-in organizer, although he didn’t actually participate. “So we sued them.”

Well, not Hughes personally, but a group of four students that represented the student body.

Attaran, Hughes and the others decided one of their first steps would be to raise a little bit of money to cover any fees accrued by the case. So they threw a party and raised $5,000 for the case by selling tickets and “overpriced” drinks.

Attaran got his lawyer friend Cameron Ward to argue the case for free. Attaran also helped with the drafting with the guidance of a couple of his favourite professors.

Their case argued that UBC’s auxiliary fee violated the then-tuition freeze in BC. They also sued over the international tuition increase. They won the case for domestic students, and UBC had to return $36 to each domestic student.

And if it wasn’t for Ralph Nader, that's where the story would have ended.

Published January 23, 1998.
Published January 23, 1998. The Ubyssey

Victories fade, institutions last

Nader gave a talk at UBC at the end of January 1997, which Attaran attended. Nader discussed his legal work addressing the malaria crisis, and Attaran, who was interested in both public health and law, decided to work with Nader on the project. Attaran would end up heading the Malaria Project.

While Attaran was working on the Malaria Project, he was spending long nights in the office with Nader. It was on one of those long nights he told Nader about his win against UBC.

Attaran remembers Nader asking him what he was going to do now. Attaran was confused by the question. Hadn’t they already won?

“Basically [Nader] was like, ‘That's not how you do it. Once you'd have victory, you have to institutionalize it, you have to build some way you want to be replicated,’” said Attaran.

So the idea of an organization to help students access funding for legal changes was born. This idea would become the SLFS.

In order to create the fund that would become the Student Legal Fund, Attaran worked with then-AMS President Vivian Hoffman and Paul Champ, Attaran’s best friend in law school who is now a public interest lawyer in Ottawa, and, of course, Hughes.

According to Attaran, Hoffman supported the fund and the referendum from the beginning. AMS council agreed to run the referendum in March 1998.

Published March 3, 1998.
Published March 3, 1998. The Ubyssey

The referendum stated, “Whereas student interests are best established in a court of law; Whereas there currently exists no organisation for the sole purpose of providing support for, often costly, court cases brought by and for the students of UBC; Whereas the Student Legal Fund will be established to fund cases to improve education and the accessibility to education at UBC;” and to vote in the affirmative would add a $1 fee and create a student legal fund.

The students campaigned, and the referendum passed.

“We basically campaigned, like we just got your $36, give us $1 out of your 36, and we will build something that allows students in the future to [do what we did],” said Attaran.

However, according to articles in The Ubyssey at the time, students didn’t know the university had quietly returned the $36 as they hadn’t told anyone. According to one Ubyssey article at the time, there was some messaging during the campaign period that a Student Legal Fund could help guarantee that the university would return the money. This created some controversy around the referendum passing. However, it stayed in place.

Published March 24, 1998.
Published March 24, 1998. The Ubyssey

To be dependent or independent, that is the question

Now that the fund had been created, it had to be decided what to do with it and how to manage it. Attaran said that his plan was always to have an independent society to manage the fund, but some AMS councillors wanted the fund to be within the AMS.

Attaran said it ended up being a pretty big fight between him and the AMS to the point where he was threatening to sue them. Attaran ended up being the “bad cop” while Champ acted as “the good cop.”

Attaran and Champ ended up winning the argument, and the Student Legal Fund Society was born as an independent organization with Hughes as the first board president.

Even though Attaran graduated in May of that year, he stuck around to help draft the bylaws with Champ.

As a fresh law graduate, Attaran was working at the Sierra Legal Defense Fund — a non-profit environmental law organization. He used the bases of their structure to draft the bylaws of the SLFS, with the support of his coworkers.

SLFS now?

Currently, the SLFS is running its election for the new board of directors. Many candidates have called out mismanagement of the fund during debates.

Many have also called out transparency issues, as the budget on the SLFS website hasn’t been updated since 2021/22. Last year, the SLFS board member quietly appointed new directors rather than holding an election after no one ran during the election period, leading to further concerns about democratic governance. However, the SLFS bylaws do allow for board members to be appointed.

Many candidates have also mentioned that they would like to see the fund used more towards a variety of causes, as it's unclear when it was last utilized at all.

Chris Hakim, a member of the 2019/20 SLFS board and the 2019/20 AMS president, said he doesn’t recall them accepting a case during his tenure despite there being an application for use of funds.

Hakim said that the reason the SLFS accepts so few cases is due to how the SLFS interprets its mandate. They are looking for cases that can set a broad precedent for all current and future UBC students, which disqualifies most applicants for legal fund support. The mandate is not outlined in the SLFS by-laws but is outlined on their website.

“So that's why you will usually see that the SLFS generates a larger and larger fund every year because the money doesn't get dispersed,” said Hakim. “There's really not a whole lot of cases that it can fund if it keeps interpreting the mandate in such a way.”

Notably, the language around precedent is not in the bylaws and was not in the referendum. It first appeared in an update about the society from the AMS in September 1998.

Attaran said he was behind the addition of the language, but it was not intended as a binary but simply something that is common practice in all public interest law practices. In choosing whether to accept cases, Attaran said that its important to consider whether the case could set a concrete or urgent precedent, but it shouldn’t disqualify cases that don’t.

“It is something you consider but it is not ever meant to be a binary consideration,” said Attaran.

The AMS also raised questions about the SLFS mandate in October 2022, when the SLFS contracts with the AMS were up for renewal — or termination.

The SLFS had two contracts in place with the AMS in previous years with the AMS Advocacy Office and the Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC).

The advocacy contract was renewed this year, but when the SLFS and the SASC signed a new contract, the AMS executive never did. According to AMS President Eshana Bhangu, contracts involving the AMS must be signed by two executives or an executive and the AMS managing director.

Bhangu told The Ubyssey whenthe AMS has decided to terminate both contracts for now, partially over concerns that the SLFS's mandate did not align with the services the contracts laid out.

Daniel Anene-Akosa, SLFS board president, disagreed that the contract fell outside the SLFS’s mandate and said it was not the AMS executives’ responsibility to decide either way.

“Both contracts were done and dealt with, both parties were happy with the outcomes, and the AMS unnecessarily inserted themselves into that arrangement,” he said in October.

Anene-Akosa and Bhangu also disagreed over the importance of precedent since the SASC contract has been renewed in previous years.

Bhangu argued that precedent does not mean the practice should continue — a stance she has taken on other issues in AMS code.

Bhangu added that because of a fee increase passed by referendum this year, the SASC is not in need of more funds, including for legal cases.

Bhangu said concerns over the SLFS’s governance are another reason the AMS is choosing to end both contracts.

She reiterated comments first made in June that the directors’ appointment process was not transparent, noting that while the AMS had offered to help run an election, one had not yet been held.

“The AMS is just not very happy [with the way] the SLFS has conducted its operations this year, from a transparency and governance perspective,” she said.

The SLFS was founded on increasing transparency, accessibility and affordability at UBC, and now students can vote to continue that legacy.

The Ubyssey has requested access to the SLFS’s budgets but wasn’t provided with them by print time.

This article was updated on April 26, 2023 to clarify how the current SLFS board members were appointed. The board members were appointed by the previous members — they did not appoint themselves.