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Philip Slayton

One lawyer can make a difference

Sometimes an individual lawyer shows what can be done about the legal profession’s biggest ethical issue — lack of access to justice — if you care enough. Recently, I’ve come across two interesting examples.

A friend gave me a book by Vancouver lawyer Dugald Christie, self-published in 2000, called A Journey into Justice. Most of the book is taken up with Christie’s account of his 1998 bicycle trip from Vancouver to Ottawa (he was 57 at the time). He took the trip so he could burn his lawyer’s robes on the steps of the Supreme Court of Canada. He wanted in this way to protest against poor people’s lack of access to justice. Christie’s quixotic journey attracted a fair bit of attention, which, of course, was the whole point. He took similar bicycle trips later, and with the same purpose.


Christie was killed in a traffic accident on July 31, 2006. His bicycle was hit by a minivan on the Trans-Canada Highway, in the hamlet of Iron Bridge, near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. This time he was heading to Newfoundland, where he planned to attend the Canadian Bar Association’s annual meeting. Christie wanted the CBA to pass a resolution calling on governments to improve access to the justice system. In an official statement, the president of the CBA said members were saddened by Christie’s tragic death. “Dugald was a dedicated fighter for the rights of Canadians who could not access the justice system,” said the president. The CBA did not pass the resolution Christie wanted.


I never met Christie. He was obviously an unusual man, a bit odd perhaps. Is there another onetime top-flight corporate lawyer who has bicycled across Canada in support of the poor? “Not everyone’s cup of tea,” said the B.C. Supreme Court chief justice when he heard about Christie’s death (the judge went on to express great respect for Christie).


A Journey Into Justice is strangely moving. Christie’s passion burns bright. As he cycled to Ottawa, struggling to climb steep hills and put up his tent at night, he ruminated on basic issues. “The questions that would never go away were: ‘Am I crazy?’ ‘Is the law really so inaccessible?’ ‘What, if anything, can be done about it?’” As he flew home after burning his robes, Christie concluded, “The key to law reform is not just to get the poor to lawyers, but to get the lawyers to see the poor.”


Christie was not just a quixotic adventurer, given to eccentric gestures and partial to bad poetry. He represented the down-and-out for many years, while living in a basement apartment on an annual income of less than $30,000. He fought against imposition by the B.C. government of a seven-per-cent tax on legal services on the grounds that it discriminated against poor people and was unconstitutional. He won that case before a chambers judge and then in the B.C. Court of Appeal, but, after he died, the Supreme Court ruled against him. Said the court: “General access to legal services is also not a currently recognized aspect of, or a precondition to, the rule of law.” Most importantly, Christie founded the Western Canada Society to Access Justice, which organizes the delivery of pro bono legal services. This admirable organization now operates over 60 clinics across British Columbia.


Not everyone who walks the walk is as eccentric and flamboyant. Recently, at Montreal’s Blue Metropolis Literary Festival, I debated the distinguished lawyer Richard Pound, about the ethics and social commitment of the legal profession. It was high-spirited and good-natured. Last year, Pound published a book called Unlucky to the End, about Janise Gamble, who was implicated in the 1976 murder of a policeman by her psychopathic and abusive husband. It was clear that she had not fired the fatal shot, but she may have been involved in a robbery that preceded the murder. Gamble was convicted of first-degree murder and was given the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without eligibility for parole for 25 years. A series of appeals were unsuccessful. She was sent to the Kingston Prison for Women. Gamble, a poor woman who had led a wretched life, was now, presumably, to be forgotten for good.


But, as Pound tells the tale, several lawyers thought there had been a miscarriage of justice — in particular, Colin Irving, a prominent Montreal tax practitioner. In 1982, Irving saw something about the Gamble case on CBC’s the fifth estate and it bothered him. He thought Gamble’s sentence was based on legislation not in effect at the time of the murder, and that ongoing enforcement of the sentence she was given violated the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment in the Charter of Rights. He wrote to Gamble and offered his services pro bono. Thus began six years of often-intensive legal work. At the end of 1988, the Supreme Court agreed with Irving’s argument and found Gamble eligible for parole. In 1989, she was let out of jail.


Sadly, a few months after being granted parole, Gamble was killed in an automobile accident — hence the title Unlucky to the End. Perhaps the best piece of luck she had in an unlucky life was having Colin Irving on her side.

Philip Slayton has been dean of a law school and senior partner of a major Canadian law firm. Visit him online at www.philipslayton.com


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