One woman’s crusade for affordable justice

TheStar.com – Opinion
February 01, 2010.   Carol Goar

Judicial leaders wrung their hands. Academics wrote papers. Politicians tinkered, but didn’t solve the problem. And Heidi Mottahedin decided justice was too important to leave to the experts.

It gnawed at her that the right to a fair trial had become meaningless for millions of Canadians because they couldn’t afford legal representation.

Mottahedin met these people every day in her work as a mediator. They had serious legal problems, but they weren’t destitute enough to qualify for legal aid and they weren’t rich enough to hire even a junior lawyer. So they were shut out of the justice system.

“I saw the need,” she said. “I had to do something.”

Knowing no one at the Canadian Bar Association, no one in the attorney general’s office and no one at the federal justice department, she turned to her son, an expert in online marketing.

They brainstormed, searched the Internet and read every study they could find. Then they hatched a plan. He would build an online directory of lawyers willing to offer their services at reduced rates to Canadians of limited means. She would recruit the lawyers and set up a not-for-profit organization to run the program.

That was the beginning of Justice Net, a free service connecting members of the public with socially conscious lawyers.

Its umbrella organization, Lawyers Aid Canada, was incorporated in early 2009. The website was up and running in November.

“It took hundreds of hours of research and development,” Mottahedin said. “But the day has finally arrived when legal services are available to low- and middle-income earners.”

One of Mottahedin’s first recruits was Virginia MacLean, a specialist in municipal law. The two women had never met, but Mottahedin knew MacLean had a strong commitment to social justice, did a lot of pro bono work and was president of the Women’s Law Association of Ontario. She got this information from the Law Society of Upper Canada.

She cold-called MacLean and asked her to join the initiative. The response was guarded. “I didn’t jump on-board,” MacLean said. “She did a lot of arm-twisting.”

What eventually won her over was Mottahedin’s passion and the fact that she had a workable plan. “Everyone was aware of the gap in the legal system,” MacLean said. “But she took the initiative and had the drive to reach out. There’s nothing in this for Heidi.”

MacLean became president of the seven-member board of directors of Lawyers Aid Canada. The vice-presidents are Patricia DeGuire, a lawyer and human rights advocate serving on the Immigration and Refugee Board, and Alex Frame, retired vice-president of English radio at the CBC.

So far, 54 lawyers have signed up. A handful of clients have made successful connections. (Mottahedin does not know how many because everything that transpires on the website is private.) The feedback from the legal community has been positive.

Justice Net is open to anyone with a household income below $59,000. Participating lawyers agree to offer clients fee reductions of 40 per cent to 60 per cent, depending on their income and the nature of the case. There are specialists in criminal law, family law, civil litigation, immigration and refugee problems and landlord-tenant disputes.

“The program is set to go into full swing in 2010,” Mottahedin said. “It is now time to make it known to those who might need it.”

One small citizen’s initiative won’t solve what Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin has called “the most important issue facing the legal system.” But Mottahedin has proved that answers can be found. The government, the judiciary and the academic community just haven’t tried hard enough.

More information is available at www.justicenet.ca.

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