The Ottawa lawyer's work on the trucker convoy is just his latest high-profile job
From a young age, Paul Champ noticed how society treats its most vulnerable.
Champ’s mother did a lot of community work for people with disabilities, many of whom would visit the household. His family also invited a cousin with a developmental delay to live with them temporarily.
Being surrounded by people at the margins of society drew Champ to volunteer at nearby seniors’ homes and eventually get a job at a home for adults with developmental delays.
“I began to think about inequities in society and what kind of career I might be able to pursue, where I could assist or help others,” says Champ. “I developed a lot of opinions and views about how society treats and takes care of those who are more disadvantaged.”
His career ever since has been defined by this commitment to fighting inequality.
After law school, Champ articled at the Saskatchewan Department of Justice in Regina where he worked on sentencing submissions.
He immediately noticed the inequities, with Regina’s sizeable Indigenous population disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system but not in its professional ranks.
“Everyone in the criminal justice field, whether it was the prosecutors, defence lawyers, judges, probation officers, the police, we were all white.”
After a short time working as a Crown prosecutor, Champ moved to Montreal to do a master’s degree and quickly realized that labour and public interest law was what he wanted to do.
So, he began researching law firms and case law. He was always curious about who the lawyers were leading the cases. So, he diligently went through every significant public interest case and found a few law firms that consistently appeared.
“I ended up identifying a few firms in Winnipeg, Edmonton and Ottawa and started applying.” He eventually reached out to Raven, Cameron, Ballantyne & Yazbeck LLP, which he says was “doing some pathbreaking pay equity work.”
His research and initiative paid off, and the firm took him on.
Champ says he remembers the excitement he would feel when a decision came out of the fax machine when a lawyer at the firm got a judgment. Public interest litigation hooked him right away.
After practising for eight years at the employment firm, Champ broadened his interest to cases outside of labour and employment.
One such case was Amnesty International and B.C. Civil Liberties Association v. Canadian Forces, where he represented Amnesty. The court granted the human rights group public interest standing to challenge the Canadian military’s transfer of detainees to the Afghan government, despite the risk of torture.
“I got to get into the guts of how government did things, cross-examining deputy ministers and senior generals, and getting disclosure of documents about how decisions were made. … I wanted to do a lot more of that.”
So, he decided to launch his firm, Champ & Associates.
While he was committed to taking pro bono public interest cases, the onus was also on Champ to run a successful business.
He says he learned important lessons from the renowned litigator Joseph Arvay, who he worked with on the Omar Khadr case that went to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2008.
“I was in awe of Joe, the kind of work he did, and the kind of practice that he led,” says Champ. Arvay advised him to “Robin Hood” his practice and make sure he always had enough cases that were well paying so he could do pro bono work on the side.
“I'd done a lot of cases even by then, and so I had a good sense of how much of my time could be consumed by a case.” He quickly learned to assess when he could take a case on or when to focus on the employment work that paid the bills.
“If you take on too many [pro bono] cases, you begin to tilt the ship, and you sink the ship.”
Champ says pro bono and “low bono” cases now make up 20 to 25 percent of his work, some years even more.
Yet Champ says he takes a similarly efficient approach in all his cases since even his paying clients, who are employees, are up against well-funded employers.
“When you're in these David and Goliath fights, you can't get into motion after motion after motion … You just don't have the means or the resources to litigate like that. So, [you] pick some narrow issues, make strategic choices on discovery and motions, and try to drive the case to hearing.”
Yet he doesn’t shy away from a fight. “I don't want people to abandon meritorious cases.”
Champ says he uses various fee models with private clients to ensure they get value.
“At the end of the day, they're not dumping a huge amount in litigation and coming out with very little.”
As for public interest cases, Champ’s name is well known in the bar for taking on high-profile fights.
Currently, he is representing the Ottawa Coalition of Residence and Businesses, which has standing before the Public Order Emergency Commission. However, his work on the convoy protests has been ongoing since he launched a class action proceeding against organizers of the Ottawa occupation while it was still taking place. Champ sought plaintiffs, used property-right principles and nuisance laws and sought injunctions to end the occupation.
He says when “you live in Ottawa, you're used to demonstrations and protests, and I'm really pro-protest rights. I'm on the board of the BC Civil Liberties Association and very much support the right to protest. As the days went on [though], it became clearer and clearer that this was something different.”
Champ has also taken on cases in prisoner’s rights and represented groups like the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, the Elizabeth Fry Society and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.
Despite the daily challenge of balancing his private practice with his passion for fighting injustice, he still says he feels lucky.
“Lawyers can be very middle class. People don't have to charge $800 or $500 an hour… I think we have to be thinking more about how we make the legal system accessible to people. That's really been important to me. My entire practice, that's the one common theme throughout all of it.”