Given a choice, most persons accused of a crime would prefer a lawyer represent them in court. But not everyone has a choice. The poor are denied access to justice when they cannot afford to pay legal fees to private counsel of $125 per/hour or more. And when they turn to New Brunswick Legal Aid for help with summary offences such as assault, they are refused.
Assault is what is known as a hybrid offence, Crown makes an election or decides to proceed either summarily (less serious penalties) or by indictment (more serious penalties).
Unlike those who are better off, a poor person has to defend herself or plead guilty. If she challenges the system, she may end up representing herself in court.
As a result, we see a growing number of low-income, self-represented litigants and accused who have become a standard feature in New Brunswick ‘s civil and criminal courts, according to “Moving Forward on Legal Aid” by the Canadian Bar Association.
According to the Canadian Bar Association, the cost of self-representation is expensive to both the accused and the taxpayer. The self-represented typically consume significantly more court time and resources than those with legal representation and they lose more often than they win.
The Charles Leblanc case is a glaring example of Legal Aid’s abject failure to help low-income persons make their way through the justice system. It also shows that self-representation may cost considerably more to the taxpayer than a Legal Aid lawyer.
In January, the controversial blogger was charged with the offense of assault, an accusation he vigorously denies. LeBlanc has been diagnosed with ADHD and epilepsy and receives a monthly income assistance cheque of $576. He lives in subsidized housing and cannot afford a lawyer. He applied twice for Legal Aid but was refused. If found guilty, LeBlanc could go to jail which means he would lose his apartment and be homeless on his release.
Given the circumstances, LeBlanc believes he has no choice but to represent himself in court. A group called “Friends For Justice” has created a website and raised more than $1100 with a goal of $5000 to give LeBlanc a legal defence. Until then, however, LeBlanc continues to have what Abraham Lincoln called a “fool for a client” in a well known quote referring to the self represented.
Leblanc’s first court appearance as a self-represented accused was on January 19 before Judge Julian Dickson of the New Brunswick Provincial Court. Since, then, he has appeared five more times before Judge Mary Jane Richards and Judge Brian McLean along with Special Crown Prosecutor Sebastien Michaud, from Edmundston.
Two recent hearings on July 7 and August 26 took 12 hours. The last hearing was held to question two members of the Miramichi Police Force. These officers received the original assault complaint against LeBlanc at the request of the Fredericton City Police. These two officers have travelled to Fredericton at least nine times on taxpayers’ expense.
LeBlanc’s next court date is Friday, September 18. On that date, LeBlanc plans to cross examine two Fredericton police officers. Anyone who has sat in on the proceedings would agree it is painful to watch LeBlanc struggle with complex legal processes while continually asking the judge to appoint a Legal Aid lawyer. Based on previous hearings. the next session could be at least eight hours. If the case goes to trial, it could be very lengthy given LeBlanc struggles to defend himself without formal legal training.
The costs to the taxpayer are estimated to be in the tens of thousands of dollars by now and there is no end in sight. What other recourse is there to an accused, like LeBlanc, who believes he is innocent? Ironically, the immediate provision of a Legal Aid lawyer might have resulted in the quick resolution of LeBlanc’s case saving the accused emotional hardship and reducing the cost to the taxpayer.
Policies making civil and criminal Legal Aid available for the working poor, seniors, students and those on income assistance appear to be at the bottom of the priority list across Canada. The common denominator seems to be costs. Eligibility for Legal Aid is a budgetary matter and budgets limit one’s eligibility, not justice.
Justice Minister Stephen Horseman must order changes to Legal Aid that would expand the provision of Legal Aid services beyond those facing the most serious charges. He needs to make it easier for New Brunswickers to qualify for assistance and get the necessary representation to resolve their legal issues.
If the present circumstances continue, we will have more poor people tying up the courts and costing the taxpayer tens of thousands of dollars for cases that might be quickly and easily resolved with the assistance of a Legal Aid lawyer.
André Faust writes for the NB Media Co-op.