A group called Friends of Justice has started a defence fund to help well known Fredericton blogger Charles LeBlanc afford a lawyer to fight a summary assault charge. LeBlanc receives social assistance and cannot afford a lawyer on his own.
The defence fund site, administered by Friends of Justice, states that the goal of their efforts will be to raise $5,000. They expect the trial to go well beyond the next court date, on August 26, and estimate that legal costs will mount. Friends of Justice says that the fund is independent of LeBlanc and that the money will go towards LeBlanc’s legal costs, not to him directly, with any remainder going towards poverty related charities.
LeBlanc applied for Legal Aid for for his first court appearance in April, but was refused. He appealed in May and was refused a second time.
Leblanc’s supporters have raised concerns over the denial of legal aid to LeBlanc.
“If you’re charged on a summary offence, the likelihood you’ll qualify for legal aid is highly remote,” says Andre Faust, spokesperson of Friends of Justice.
Faust stresses that this is a problem, “The judge has latitude on a summary offence to sentence you for up to 6 months in jail or fine you up to $5000.”
Faust says that in LeBlanc’s case, a judge could lean towards a harsher sentence. “Given that he’s embarrassed people in the structure, there may be what I call judicial bias against him.”
Faust is referring to LeBlanc’s blog, which pulls no punches in its criticism of local police, politicians and government bureaucrats.
“There’s a good chance he could face jail time if he represents himself,” Faust warns.
The concern is well founded. In 2010, Melina Buckley wrote a report for the Canadian Bar Association titled, Moving Forward on Legal Aid.
“The coverage criteria currently in place generally deny legal representation to low-income accused who have been charged with minor offences even though the impact of a criminal record would be extremely serious for them … unrepresented accused are often vulnerable and disadvantaged due to their personal characteristics, low levels of education and literacy, and higher rates of drug and alcohol addiction. Regardless of the seriousness of the charges against them, these individuals cannot adequately advocate for themselves. Many of them end up in prison as a result,” Buckley explains in the report.
The unrepresented fare worse than those with lawyers in both criminal and civil cases, the point being that the unrepresented generally cannot match lawyers in a courtroom. A report by Dr. Jula Hughes and E.L. MacKinnon in 2007, If there were Legal Aid in New Brunswick … a Review of Legal Services in New Brunswick emphasizes the disparity.
“The judges we consulted were unanimous in their conclusion that an unrepresented litigant is much less likely to achieve a favourable outcome than a represented litigant, particularly when self representation was not a choice,” the authors state.
In a comment to the NB Media Coop about LeBlanc’s predicament, Hughes stresses that the lack of legal aid coverage for someone facing a summary charge results in many problems. She says, “(Unrepresented) are not able to effectively participate in a criminal trial, so the consequences are more wrongful convictions, inappropriate pleas, delays, adjournments, longer trials, inappropriate sentences.”
Faust understands what LeBlanc is up against. For his next court appearance on August 26, LeBlanc is expecting to represent himself, as no legal representation has yet been secured.
“Charles has got to go up against an experienced Crown prosecutor who knows the court procedures and worked with judges on many occasions. Charles walks in without having that sophistication. The other handicap that Charles has with self representation is his ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). He can’t focus,” says Faust.
In a statement on his blog, LeBlanc emphatically states, “I told the court many, many times, I’m not a lawyer. I need a lawyer.”
Faust adds, “We believe the allegations are groundless and that Charles has several defences available to him: however, because of his ADHD, lack of legal knowledge and experience he cannot articulate those defences to the court’s satisfaction.”
The defence fund site points out the LeBlanc is at risk of losing everything. “Charles receives an income assistance cheque of $567 per month. He lives in subsidized housing and if he goes to jail, he may end up homeless.”
Supporters of LeBlanc want to make clear that although they are currently putting their energy towards helping LeBlanc afford a lawyer, this issue is not just about LeBlanc.
“At the end of the day, we’re hoping that we can level the playing field,” says Faust. He notes that LeBlanc’s case touches on a number of important social issues. “This is a case that challenges legal aid, poverty and mental health.”