Fifty years after she hung out a legal shingle and began serving poverty-stricken clients, former Supreme Court of Canada judge Claire L'Heureux-Dubé has returned to her old haunts.
Just a hundred metres from the Quebec City law office where she began her career, the 77-year-old legal legend is again serving the poor and dispossessed.
This time, however, Ms. L'Heureux-Dubé has created a unique legal service that is generating interest throughout Quebec and beyond.
Known as L a Maison de justice, or Justice House, it consists of about 45 volunteers, mostly retired judges, notaries and lawyers, who donate several hours of their time each week.
In less than three years, they have guided 10,554 frustrated individuals through the complicated justice system.
Their services range from explaining where to find a lawyer, to drafting a will, to helping fill out forms for small claims court, to explaining how the family-court system works.
The only thing they will not do is offer specific legal advice.
At a time when governments pinch every possible dollar, the operation is also astonishingly cheap, with a budget of $20,000 a year.
Office space is provided free within the office of the Quebec City ombudsman, leaving only the cost of a part-time secretary and office supplies.
"This is the most important thing I am doing right now," Ms. L'Heureux-Dubé said in an interview. "I'm really back home to my roots. I put my heart into it because I believe in it. It's such a beautiful concept: retired people with experience who want to give to the community. It's good for everybody's soul."
Several cities in Quebec are planning offices modelled after La Maison de justice, she said.
Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney-General sent a senior official to look at the project not long ago, and there also have been expressions of interest from as far away as Victoria.
Ms. L'Heureux-Dubé said that patient, knowledgeable counsellors should be an indispensable part of any justice system, because people who lack money or sophistication are prone to being shooed away by bureaucrats and harried court workers.
"People get frustrated at being sent away, and then the judicial system ends up being looked at like a monster," she said.
"I had one lady tell me recently: 'This is the first time I have been treated like a human being. Finally, someone has given me an answer.' "
Sometimes people simply give up in disgust, Ms. L'Heureux-Dubé added. "Part of our job is just listening to them. They want to talk about their problems. They want to be sure that the step they are taking is a good step. Often, they are actually afraid of lawyers."
The idea for the service was hatched several years ago when then Quebec City mayor Jean-Paul L'Allier and Paul Bégin, provincial justice minister at the time, travelled to France to see similar operations that exist in every major city. However, they came up with a distinctive twist: Counsellors would operate on a pro bono basis, rather than earning a salary.
Ms. L'Heureux-Dubé was an obvious choice to run the pilot project.
"She is an amazing person; a really unique person," said Ombudsman Pierre Angers. "She is the most motivated person I know when it comes to getting access to justice for this class of people."
A lifelong social activist and a Supreme Court judge from 1987 to 2004, Ms. L'Heureux-Dubé has assembled an extraordinary circle of contacts in the judiciary, legal profession, academia and humanitarian causes.
They came in handy when it was time to find volunteer recruits and gain institutional acceptance for La Maison de justice.
Despite a punishing post-retirement schedule that includes lecturing, advising and giving speeches around the world, Ms. L'Heureux-Dubé said La Maison de justice remains her favourite project.
However, she has had to confine her role primarily to administrative tasks and drumming up new counsellors.
"The people all want to see me," she explained. "Let's face it -- my reputation is there, and this is a small city. I am afraid of creating a culture of me."
Mr. Angers said a recent survey found that the clients of La Maison de justice were evenly divided by gender, and were clustered mainly in the 25-54 age group.
The majority had matrimonial problems, and 95 per cent said they were satisfied with the help they received.
However, some members of the legal establishment fear La Maison de justice could siphon off clients who ought to be turning to them for paid legal services.
But Mr. Angers said there should be no such worries. "We actually refer new clients to them," he said. "We serve people who are not rich enough to pay a lawyer, but have too much money to qualify for legal aid."