Julia Negrea waited four months for the judge’s decision. Waiting that long had, perhaps, dulled the excitement of potentially winning her first court case, but as the decision was read, Negrea knew she had won.
Her first trial win had been a collection of new experiences: her first cross-examination of a police officer, setting her first precedent, and, of course, her first courtroom victory. The most rewarding, though, is the reality of getting justice for her client, who may not have been represented had a legal aid program not existed.
Negrea is a third-year student at the University of Manitoba Robson Hall law school, who has devoted a significant amount of time working at the University Law Centre with Legal Aid Manitoba to provide legal assistance to those who cannot afford private representation. At 33, she has more real-world experience than an average law student may have, and is putting that experience to use. On Jan. 11, Negrea won her first court case involving an obstruction of a police officer charge.
Last summer, she travelled to Portage la Prairie, Man., to represent Annette Sanderson, who was charged with obstruction after she refused a police officer entry to her home in a child-custody dispute. The officer arrived at 1:30 a.m. demanding Sanderson turn over her two grandchildren to authorities. Negrea was able to prove to the judge that the officer on duty had no right to enter the home, or demand Sanderson turn the children over.
Negrea had only managed to contact Sanderson a few days before the trial. She was worried the case may be adjourned because of the lack of communication between herself and her client. The Crown decided to go forward with the case, and Negrea presented her argument to the court, thinking the judge would stay the case. The judge didn’t.
Negrea won Sanderson’s case, and set a new precedent, changing how police can enforce custody orders. According to Manitoba’s Child Custody Enforcement Act, police officers may only enforce custody orders when a court grants them approval to do so. In Sanderson’s case, there was no such approval. “There was a great moment when I asked the officer to read through the custody order and tell the court whether there was any police enforcement clause,” Negrea says. “Of course there wasn’t.”
The University Law Centre where Negrea volunteers has second- and third-year students providing legal representation to people who cannot afford their own lawyers. “The University Law Centre is a critical part of the justice system in Winnipeg and the surrounding area. Judges regularly refer clients to us, and without the 50 to 70 students who volunteer every year, there would be a lot more people facing charges without representation,” she says. “We intake about 10 to 20 clients a week, and do some civil work, but it only makes up for about 10 to 15 per cent of clients.”
As one of four students picked to volunteer full time at the centre after her second year, Negrea was named student supervisor and was responsible for helping volunteers with advice and information regarding procedures, while carrying 50 to 75 files. “My days flew by, I learned more than I could have imagined, and about things that were not covered in class,” she says.
When Negrea was three years old, her parents immigrated to Canada from Romania. She grew up in Toronto and received her bachelor of education from McGill University in 1999. After receiving her master’s degree in education from the University of British Columbia, she taught high school in Vancouver for six years. In Vancouver, she became involved with a rape crisis line, and then worked as a board member with Women Against Violence Against Women. “This experience really highlighted the importance of having a justice system that responds to the needs of victims while also protecting the rights of the accused,” she says.
She notes the intellectual challenge of law school was one of the main factors that drove her to pursue a degree in law, and her experience in the classroom helped teach her to be patient and to communicate effectively — traits she credits for her success in law so far.
Despite her focus on her studies, she says the experience she has gained working with legal aid is the most rewarding work she has done in her legal career. “I wanted to become directly involved in ensuring a fair and responsive justice system,” she says. “Legal aid work sets precedents on a regular basis and we provide excellent defences to clients who would otherwise be facing the intricacies of the justice system on their own.”
This year, she will be articling with Legal Aid Manitoba, working mainly on criminal law files and some family maintenance cases. Her dream job would combine criminal law, feminism, and activism. She aspires to get involved with organizations like LEAF (Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund) or Egale (Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere), and hopes to continue developing her career in legal aid.