When we think about access to justice, we also think about fundamental fairness. We think about the fact that the people who call us are often fighting uphill battles against large institutions. We know those institutions are often just doing their job, but we also know that the playing field isn’t level. When you’re an elderly person trying to convince a financing company that your furnace rental contract just isn’t fair, you are swimming against a very strong current. When you’re a tenant on social assistance trying to resist eviction proceedings brought by a large property manager, you are staring up a high, steep mountain. When you’re an employee mulling over a severance package, knowing you are owed more but tempted to sign because you badly need some money, that is not a fair fight.
PBO understands that when we receive calls from vulnerable people in these kinds of situations, there is more than a legal issue at stake. Many of these clients are also facing an enormous loss of trust in the people and institutions in their lives. When friends turn into formidable foes and you have to deal with them alone, this can also have harmful health effects. PBO seeks to intervene in a way that addresses all aspects of this challenge. In addition to technical legal expertise, our clients need validation that their perspective is important and assurance that someone cares. This empowers them to face the problem and gives them that best shot at a remedy. It also reduces the chance that the initial legal problem will cascade into further and more severe problems.
This doesn’t mean our clients can or even should win every case. Nor does it mean that our clients’ opponents are always unreasonable. However, what it does mean is that we can make sure our clients put their best foot forward. We can help them organize their information, tell their story, identify their strongest position, and stick up for themselves. When needed, we will make sure a free lawyer does that on their behalf.
It is astonishing to see what happens when we arrange that level of advocacy. We get results, and we bring peace of mind. One client’s granddaughter recently told us that the result achieved by pro bono counsel was “better than our best-case scenario”, and that her grandmother’s anxiety and depression had gone down for the first time in 3 years.
This drives home the point that it’s not just the legal issues themselves that cause so much suffering. It’s also the stress and humiliation of trying to get through to a sophisticated opponent who has resources that seem unlimited and priorities that feel alienating. That’s not how disputes are meant to be addressed in Canada. We take pride in strong, durable institutions that are meant to enable citizens to address legal challenges with fairness and dignity. Sometimes – indeed very often – pro bono support is the only thing that can make this happen.
Lynn Burns, Executive Director