New Brunswick Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice will give her decision in the case for contempt against Fredericton anti-poverty activist Vaughn Barnett on February 27. Lawyers for the Law Society of New Brunswick and Barnett, representing himself, completed their arguments at the January 27 trial.
Barnett faces the possibility of 90–180 days of jail for alleged violations of the Law Society Act of New Brunswick and previous court orders against him. The Law Society alleges Barnett practiced law without a licence. Barnett has never been a licenced lawyer. Between 2017 and 2019, he offered free services to two individuals, who he emphasized were both friends, which gave rise to the allegations.
In 2000 and 2007, he was ordered not to provide services that were held as breaches of the Act, including use of the terms “legal research” and “advocacy.” He was also prohibited from issuing any document in a Court of Queen’s Bench proceeding or tribunal or administrative proceeding on someone else’s behalf, unless he had prior written consent from the court or other body.
Barnett argued that in a free and democratic society, it is important to use as much freedom as you are afforded, especially when you are doing it to help someone.
He said that the contempt case against him was a response to his activism because it only arose after he was effective in pressuring for accountability.
Barnett argued against any wrongdoing. He stated that his actions were all given consent by those authorized to grant it, a requirement of his previous court orders, or were examples of activism where he used his understanding of the law to argue for government accountability. This included an issue of unpaid trainees, in which he succeeded in having the Ombud office respond, and prevention of an arrest he said was unlawful. He said that to prevent him from using legal analysis in his activism or calls for government accountability is an infringement of his freedom of expression.
He said his actions were all consistent with a reasonable interpretation of the court orders against him and emphasized that he respected his court orders, saying that he was not defying the law.
The Law Society said that Barnett practiced law without a licence, which they say is a violation of the Law Society Act of New Brunswick and his previous court orders. The Act prohibits unlicenced individuals from providing legal services, even if the assistance is free and for low income people.
Lawyers for the Law Society argued that Barnett has not let up in his attempts to practice law and rejected his assertion that the contempt case was a response to his activism. They said that he was regularly pushing the envelope and trying to see what he could get away with, suggesting he was defying the Act and his court orders. They argued that he was unapologetic and a repeat offender, and that for these reasons, a substantial jail sentence was justified.
While remaining committed to his position that he did not breach the Act or his orders, Barnett informed the court that if he was found in contempt, he was apologetic for his interpretation.
The Chief Justice ordered a return date of February 27 in order to have time to consider the complex issues the case raised. Barnett was told that if he is found in contempt, he should be prepared for starting his jail sentence.
Asaf Rashid is a lawyer, long-time community organizer, and former board member of the NB Media Co-op.