...Lawyer, Advocate, Modern-day Robin Hood - As a passionate advocate for the poor, Lawyer Dugald Christie believed strongly in the right of all Canadians to access the justice system. When Dugald died on July 31, 2006 on the Trans-Canada Highway near Sault Ste. Marie, he was cycling across Canada on a crusade for judicial reform.
Starting in Vancouver and cycling to Ottawa, Dugald was collecting signatures on a petition he intended to present to Prime Minister Steven Harper to raise awareness for access-to-justice issues and for reforms he wished to make to the Canadian justice system.
This was his second of such trips: in 1998, protesting discrimination against low-income clients within the Canadian justice system, he cycled to Ottawa and burned his lawyer’s court robes on Parliament Hill.
Throughout his life, Dugald Christie continually fought to defend access to justice for all Canadians, by raising awareness to the obstacles facing ordinary Canadians in the Canadian justice system, by doing pro bono work for many years and by constitutionally challenging provincial sales tax on legal services.
When an avalanche wiped out Dugald Christie’s waterfront home in 1982, he saw first hand the difficulties facing ordinary Canadians in the justice system. From that time on, he worked to help low-income Canadians and to raise awareness to the lack of access the average Canadian has to justice. He called it the ABC’s of true justice: affordable, brief and comprehensible. “Canadians have to focus on the reality: the ordinary person simply cannot afford the legal process, cannot wait the years that are necessary to get before a judge and cannot understand the horrific paperwork that is required”, he said. “In short, Canadians do not have access to justice! Access to justice is the most important issue there is in Canada today!"
While cycling across Canada, Dugald was raising awareness with legal professionals and ordinary Canadians about access to justice and reforms he felt should be made with the legal justice system. After presenting the Prime Minister with the petition he was to continue on to St. John’s, Newfoundland, to address the Canadian Bar Association. Dugald continually fought to raise awareness to the problems he saw with the Canadian justice system.
In keeping with his belief that justice should be affordable, brief and comprehensible, Dugald Christie began doing pro bono legal work through the Vancouver Salvation Army in 1985. He volunteered his services through them for 13 years, during which he helped them expand their free legal advice services; they now operate more then 20 clinics throughout British Columbia. In 1999 Dugald left the Salvation Army to continue his mission for access to justice by co-founding The Western Canada Society to Access Justice, which grew to become the largest legal aid clinic in British Columbia. Thanks to Dugald’s 12-hour work days and tireless work in recruiting lawyers to donate their time, Access Justice now has 61 clinics throughout BC, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan and over 400 lawyers who volunteer their time every month. Without Dugald’s hard work and persistence, Access Justice and the Salvation Army’s legal clinics would not have grown to be as widespread as they now are.
Dugald Christie’s biggest fight for the working poor began when, in 1992 while Dugald was doing pro bono legal work through the Salvation Army, the provincial government of British Columbia extended that province's sales tax to legal services. Dugald believed that the PST made legal services even more inaccessible to low-income Canadians. He and other lawyers challenged the law four times over the years until, in 2005, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional and that it limited the "fundamental right of access to the court of low-income persons." Justice Marvyn Koenigsberg ruled that British Columbians with annual incomes below $29,000 would not have to pay sales tax on their lawyers' bills. The court also ordered the B.C. government to reimburse, with interest, more than $6,200 seized from Dugald for unpaid sales tax. Dugald went on to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, saying in an interview with CBC that the tax violates an important principle, “that everyone is entitled to appear before the courts unhindered by the government, that we all have the right to appear before a court without being taxed out of existence.” Dugald persistently sought to remove the barriers to justice for ordinary Canadians.
Dugald will be missed by all who knew him, from lawyers to human rights advocates, and everyone whose lives he affected in his tireless pursuit of equal access to the justice system. His legacy will live on: Access to Justice continues to grow, his battle to remove PST from legal services will continue to make a difference to low-income British Columbians and their lawyers, and so long as people remember all that he strove to do to help Canadians have access to justice, we all can be aware of all the obstacles facing everyday Canadians in our justice system.
Western Society for Access Justice - http://www.accessjustice.ca
Salvation Army Pro Bono Program - http://www.probono.ca
Image Courtesy of A. Cameron Ward & Company - Dugald Christie prior to leaving for his cross-country ride. - Image Canadian Press