Skip to main content

Lawyer Catriona Verner had spent almost five hours rushing from one end of the courthouse to the other, but she had yet to make a penny.

Her main legal aid client on this day -- a man who allegedly threw a cup of coffee at his estranged wife -- had been in custody for nine days.

Although he was shipped each day to the Oshawa, Ont., courthouse, his bail hearing kept getting deferred.

Story continues below advertisement

The justice system knew nothing of this exercise in tail chasing, nor did it care. It simply boiled down to another day in jail for the defendant and another day of involuntary, pro-bono servitude for his lawyer.

Today, however, the news was worse than usual. With an outlandish total of 60 names crammed onto the docket, the Justice of the Peace announced by midmorning that things appeared hopeless.

"I can't play with the numbers any more," he said, exasperated. "They are just out of control. Many people with far more experience than me would know that these numbers just don't work."

A couple of courtrooms down the hallway, Victoria Tucci -- Ms. Verner's colleague at the Toronto firm of Hicks Block Adams -- was busy juggling a handful of guilty pleas and pretrial judicial conferences. She emerged into view periodically, high heels clicking like a flamenco dancer as she raced from one case to another.

"Neither of us has made anything yet," Ms. Tucci called out, as she flew by around 1:30 p.m.

This is a taste of life in the legal aid trenches, in these dying days of a social program that was created to give indigents a measure of equality before the courts. Condemned by most provinces to expire from a thousand cuts, legal aid programs face an ever decreasing pool of Catriona Verners and Victoria Tuccis willing to negotiate the byzantine justice system for confused litigants.

As a result, already underfinanced court systems are forced to absorb more and more litigants who either get lost in the legal shuffle or make pitiful attempts to mount their own defence.

Story continues below advertisement

And the defendants are not the only ones who suffer. Friends, families and witnesses litter courthouse corridors in an incessant game of hurry-up-and-wait. Victims and complainants are worn down by the waiting and uncertainty. The only encounter all of these civilians are ever likely to have with the court system frequently leaves them cynical about its ability to deliver justice.

Inside the courtrooms, judges have been turned into virtual traffic cops and prosecutors into harried accountants. Clerks struggle to stay on top of the flow of names and paperwork.

In short, the average provincial courthouse would resemble a sausage factory were it not for the fact that sausages are packaged and handled with considerably more care and precision than the average litigant is likely to receive.

For their troubles, however, judges and prosecutors are at least paid a solid salary. Legal aid lawyers, on the other hand, have a notoriously unstable income that is prey to all manner of unpredictable events.

A client for a bail hearing, for example, may end up being declared ineligible to receive legal aid. Guess who doesn't get paid? Ms. Tucci said it happens regularly. "You take your losses, and you go on from there."

Low hourly rates also represent an enormous problem for legal aid lawyers. In Ontario, for instance, the legal aid tariff remains frozen at 1987 levels. Lawyers with two or three years' experience -- like Ms. Tucci and Ms. Verner -- make $67 a hour.

Story continues below advertisement

By the time legal aid lawyers have lopped off enough income to cover overhead, they are left with a salary the average municipal official or garbage man would scoff at.

However, the real killer is the cap most legal aid programs place on the number of hours that lawyers are permitted to bill for specific legal procedures. An Ontario lawyer, for instance, can bill for one judicial pretrial hearing per case. With Ms. Tucci about to attend her third pretrial conference for the same case on this day, the prospect of being paid was fantasy.

"There is going to end up being a fourth," she added. "I'm doing them for free."

Bail hearings are capped at two billable hours. Thus, simply making the drive to Oshawa for her domestic abuse case brought Ms. Verner up to the cap. She will get nothing for the extra hours of arranging sureties, cajoling court personnel and, of course, waiting.

Nor, does their work end there. Legal aid lawyers placate frazzled clients and their families, and explain to them how the system works. Acting as an intermediary between prosecutors and the accused, they facilitate guilty pleas, allowing the system to lurch along instead of grinding to a halt.

In short, they are indispensable to the court system. Why then, does the public appear to care so little about the demise of the plans?

One possible reason is that, as with day care or cancer treatment, people tend to become passionate only when their lives are touched directly. Legal aid also suffers from an image created several years ago, when a number of high-volume lawyers known as "dump trucks" were found to be making relatively large incomes with questionable regard for their clients.

Ms. Verner also suspects that the public erroneously believes criminal lawyers make the same kind of salaries as their corporate, Bay Street counterparts.

In reality, if a legal aid lawyer can keep a steady and efficient flow of cases coming in and out of the office, he or she may eke out a reasonable income -- approximately $60,000 in Ms. Verner's case.

By the end of their day in Oshawa last week, Ms. Tucci and Ms. Verner had each worked an 11-hour day, including travel time.

Ms. Verner would have made nothing had she not took the bold step of going to another judge late in the afternoon to plead for a client's bail hearing to finally be held. It worked, resulting in her client getting bail and Ms. Verner being able to bill legal aid for two hours.

Meanwhile, Ms. Tucci -- who never did get lunch that day -- intended to bill for three or four hours of her workday.

Both lawyers planned to use a special "discretionary" procedure in an attempt to persuade Legal Aid Ontario to allow them extra hours because of the special circumstances of their cases.

After eating a quick dinner at home, Ms. Tucci began preparing for the next day's cases.

"You put in a tremendous amount of hours and it's very stressful work," Ms. Tucci said. "But we are dealing with people's lives: their freedom and their liberty. When I go home at night and realize that I helped someone come a little closer to achieving justice, I feel great."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

If your comment doesn't appear immediately it has been sent to a member of our moderation team for review

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.