A Legal Primer from the Phone Shift
by Peter Eastwood
They call up saying things like, “You’re gonna love this one.” Or “have I got a case for you!” Their voices sound confident, even sardonic – but desperate for human connection, or at least a human voice. You get a sense they’ve made a few calls before this one. They often introduce themselves first, then ask for my name, in a vague attempt to establish a bond.
I tell them I can’t give them advice over the phone. “I don’t need advice,” they often sneer, as though we were talking about laxatives, “I just need some information on what I should do concerning the law in _____.”
I inform them as nicely as possible that, well, actually that would be legal advice. Usually at this point they get angry, frustrated. “So what the hell do you do?” they demand. They yell, swear, tell me I’m a moron. Sometimes they hang up, to try the next entry in the Yellow Pages that has “law” in the title.
Part of the problem is the name: Law Students’ Legal Advice Program. It connotes immediacy, convenience, as though we can get to the court with 10 minutes’ notice to represent you on an indictable offense. It connotes accessibility. People, I think, seem to perceive us as the Wendy’s drive-thru of the legal system.
In reality we are increasingly one of the primary legal aid providers for people facing criminal charges where there’s little likelihood of a jail sentence, as well as a variety of other matters. Last year, the program did something in the neighbourhood of 5,000 cases. Which is why, in general, we’re not looking for cases, even ones we supposedly are bound to love – we’ve got enough of them already.
During the school year, I work at a university-funded work-study position answering the main phone line for the program. It’s a position that I’m grateful for, but that sometimes feels like a mixed blessing. Often there is the personal satisfaction that comes from booking someone in a very desperate situation into one of our many clinics, and hearing the relief that comes from them discovering they can get some legal assistance for free, in a world which increasingly charges for things like soup crackers or extra butter.
Then there are the other calls. People get angry, sometimes very angry. They tell you that you’re part of the conspiracy, part of the problem. In the course of my job I’ve heard about secret societies, conspiracies by everyone from school boards to lesbians, and just general, garden-variety, fascist-state-dictatorship-like-oppression, usually by those who command power at the lower levels of the societal hierarchy, like knitting clubs.
Most calls, thankfully, are people in need of actual help. Focusing on poverty law, which encompasses the spectrum of everything from social assistance (EI, WCB, CPP) appeals, Immigration, Tenancy, Small Claims, and Criminal, still our biggest single area – the kinds of cases we deal with are routinely disheartening. The sheer number of assault cases, particularly domestic assault cases – “K” files, as they are known in BC – is depressing, frustrating and often haunting, particularly when there are times we get at least a few calls an hour on the subject. Other calls touch on the subjects one encounters frequently in poverty law: mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, disability, homelessness, unemployment and the desperate lack of resources for people facing problems with family law.
Disheartened by fact patterns such as this, I’m not usually in any mood to invest my legal skills in the trivial. Often the things callers mistakenly perceive to be legal problems wouldn’t even make it past the most desperate producers of Judge Judy. This is, perhaps, the saddest truth to be discovered in doing phones for a free legal advice program – just how litigious a society we have become.
It frequently astonishes me how often people seem willing to go to great lengths to bring more conflict into their lives, perhaps due to romanticized notions about the justice system – or more accurately, an overly-romanticized notion about life. People, I’ve come to learn, really do expect redemption for all wrongs.
These vestigial traces of such a Frank Capraesque philosophy would be more encouraging if it weren’t for what some of these perceived wrongs were. I’ve had people call wanting to sue teachers over grades, telepersonals companies over lame dates, and Canada Post delivery people over upsetting their pets. A conversation with a recent fellow underscores this point – he wanted to take his common-law spouse to court over her charging up money on his credit card without his permission. I asked him if uh, he and his girlfriend were still together, and if, well, they had talked about it. “Yeah, we have,” he told me. “But you know, every time I bring it up, we always end up getting into a big argument.”
How do you explain to someone that court, even Small Claims court, is worse than a big argument? How do you explain the reasonable person standard, so important in judicially considering the lawfulness of actions, to people who are so clearly unreasonable? I’ve come close to discouraging people from launching lawsuits against their family members because of an insult spoken over the holiday dinner table, only to be told I should know better, and should want to help them, because I’m a law student. Many people seem to think that a mandatory course at law school is how to create frivolous lawsuits.
While the public perception of lawyers suffers a few blows every day, I like to think that we, like many lawyers and law students throughout the country, are working hard to make a dent in the sheer volume of problems out there. We’re there to help fix wrongly-decided decisions, help those who have made mistakes be dealt with fairly by society, and help others who want to change difficult situations or protect themselves. Doing poverty law work quickly reminds one just how vulnerable life is, how quickly one wrong decision can turn itself into many sleepless nights and heartache. It reminds you how sometimes there’s only a thin, semi-permeable membrane that separates right from wrong.
Here’s another secret: contrary to what many people think, our justice system works relatively well. It is a problematic, conflicted, and imperfect system – that reflects a problematic, conflicted, and imperfect society. A society where all of us, as individuals, might take greater responsibility for the decisions, actions and relationships we undertake, and for those around us. A society where each of us might take more interest in the morality of what we do, and more of an active interest in the social issues before us. That is where the justice system should start, long before one ever directly encounters it. It seems curious that a basic introduction to the law and our legal system is still not a required course in high schools, when things like metalwork often are.
So if you’re reading this, and considering taking legal action of any kind, I’m asking you to stop for a moment and think about it. Is it motivated by the right reasons? Are you doing it because you’ve been wronged, really wronged? Is it about a speeding ticket?
Oh, and wait – don’t tell me it’s about principle. It’s the principle of the thing, you say. Right. Now, I’m all for principles. Quite frankly, there’s a lot of good principles out there, and I’m probably in favour of most or all of them. But the thing is, that principle might result in several years of litigation, and probably a lot of money, and would end up clogging up our imperfect court system even further. So if it’s about your ego or your pride, or even, as is often the case, an apology, I’d suggest you pick yourself up off the floor, develop a thicker skin, and deal with it. And yes, that would be advice.
Peter Eastwood is a law student at the University of British Columbia, and a writer who has published essays, fiction and reviews in a variety of publications. He is currently a summer-articled student at Borden Ladner Gervais in Vancouver, and one of the founders of the new CoRe Conflict Resolution Clinic at UBC’s Dispute Resolution Program. This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.
This article was published in the August 2001 issue of BarTalk. © 2001 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.