Thompson Rivers University

Law students helping clients with multiple sclerosis

  Posted on: March 22, 2018

Imagine you live with multiple sclerosis—an unpredictable, chronic illness—and due to your symptom load you are unable to continue working. Aside from managing your health condition, you must now also navigate complex disability application forms. It’s an overwhelming time to be sure.

A trio of TRU Law students is helping to make it easier for individuals in this situation.

“Students help with disability applications such as Canada Pension Plan Disability (CPP-D), Persons with Disabilities (PWD), Disability Tax Credit (DTC) and Long Term Disability (LTD),” said Nyssa Lessingham, Volunteer Legal Advocacy Program (VLAP) Coordinator with the MS Society of Canada (BC & Yukon Division).

“This is a very stressful point in the client’s life. Having people help them navigate this helps to relieve that stress,” she added.

VLAP partners with law students through Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC), which established a division at TRU in fall 2017.

Second-year law student Judith Acevedo says the experience working with real clients, who have a very real and pressing need, was both challenging and rewarding.

“It’s a big deal for them. You don’t want to miss anything. It’s a sensitive topic and they have to share in detail,” Acevedo described of questioning the client about how the illness affects them.

The students’ role is to work in pairs with a client, over the phone, one asking questions and the other recording notes.

The practical experience of interviewing clients adds to the students’ tool kit. Plus, Acevedo says asking questions strictly over the phone adds an element of complexity as clarity is essential, yet facial cues and body language are absent.

“Over the course of several interviews, the students assist their client to articulate and document their symptoms. They are creating a thorough and clear description of their symptoms and how it impacts their life,” explained Lessingham.

“That document becomes an addendum to the disability application. Ultimately, we are trying to demonstrate how their circumstances match with the disability benefit’s eligibility criteria,” she said.

Lessingham and her team review the application before it is submitted. From there the process can be quite lengthy—three to four months of waiting for a decision.

While the seven clients that TRU students worked with since last fall have yet to hear a decision, applications that go through VLAP do have a high success rate.

“The Auditor General of Canada’s 2015 report found that nationally, 43 percent of applications for CPP-D are denied. Through VLAP,  in 2017, we had a 92 percent approval rate for CPP-D applications,” Lessingham said.

“Each year our case load increases. We couldn’t assist the number of clients we do without our volunteers.”

The VLAP program, which currently only serves the BC and Yukon, is expanding, as the MS Society of Canada gets set to roll out a national program this year.