Dishing out legal advice in Hyack Square

  • September 05, 2012

Source: New Westminster News Leader
Byline: Grant Granger

There’s always people willing to give free legal advice, although not many of them are actually lawyers.

However, New Westminster residents will get to be on the receiving end of free legal advice from lawyers on Tuesday when the Pro Bono Going Public 2012 shows up at Hyack Square.

Between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., more than 100 lawyers will be available to give free legal advice to low-income individuals thanks to the Canadian Bar Association and the Access Pro Bono Society of BC.

A similar event was to be held in Vancouver’s Victory Square on Friday (Sept. 7), and others will be held in Kelowna and Victoria, to highlight the degree to which access to the justice system is in a crisis. With government drastically cutting back on legal aid services, it’s been left up to the charitable shoulders of lawyers to provide pro bono work, says society executive director Jamie Maclaren.

“There’s always been a need for pro bono services but it’s certainly been ramped up with legal aid being cut back,” said Maclaren.

He noted in 2002, when the legal aid budget was slashed by 40 per cent the network of poverty law offices in the country went from 40,000 to zero in one year.

“Obviously those legal fees just didn’t disappear, other lawyers had to stand up to provide those services,” said Maclaren.

British Columbia, he noted, has the largest pro bono engagement in the country.

Maclaren’s interest in pro bono work began while attending law school at UBC after getting an undergraduate philosophy degree. Pro bono meant he could put his philosophical concepts and theories to practical use.

“I was inculcated early in my law career, and I’ve kept that ethic up,” said Maclaren. “What I liked most is the discovery I could help people. “I could help solve people’s problems in the here and now. Turn a negative situation into something if not positive, not negative any more. I got gratification from helping people in small cases that meant a great deal to the people facing the problems.”

His biggest case has been successfully getting the B.C. Supreme Court to strike down the province’s court hearing fees as unconstitutional, a ruling the government is currently appealing.

Small cases, though—such as helping a client get money being withheld by a landlord in order to find a new apartment—are rewarding, because it can help people get some security in their lives, said Maclaren.

“The ones I found most gratifying are the ones that have a connection with a client with a somewhat mundane legal problem that helps them carry on with their life.”

Often, said Maclaren, people avoid going to a lawyer because they can’t afford it.

“It’s not surprising people aren’t proactive about their legal problems. They let it fester to the point where they have a court appearance before actually doing anything about it,” he said.

Tuesday’s consultations will generally last about 30 minutes each.

In that time, lawyers can steer people in the right direction, advise them what is realistic in terms of outcomes and what’s not, said Maclaren. “There’s a lot that can be done in a half hour.”

The society regularly holds clinics at Douglas College’s New Westminster campus. Tuesday’s event appointment book is basically full, said Maclaren, so he advises low-income individuals looking to get advice to get there early because the drop-in slots get booked quickly.

He also suggests clients be organized by providing a timeline, a synopsis and documents for the lawyers to look at.

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