A place for the poor to turn to
New poverty law service gives access to civil law for those who can’t afford lawyers
When Paul Nettleton first heard about the vacant poverty law position while in the middle of a job interview last year with the Nunavut Legal Services Board, he jumped at it.
“They mentioned the poverty law position and I said, ‘that’s me,” Nettleton said, explaining how he applied for a regular legal aid job in Nunavut, but then ended up as Nunavut’s first poverty law specialist.
Nettleton, a legal aid lawyer and ex-MLA from British Columbia, moved to Iqaluit this past October to fill a big gap that Nunavut legal aid officials – and many Nunavummiut – have worried about for a long time.
A 2002 Justice Canada study on Nunavut’s legal services cites a long list of unmet needs, many of them part of what’s called “poverty law” in the rest of the country: evictions, personal bankruptcies, social assistance complaints, wrongful dismissals, as well as personal injury, medical malpractice and human rights claims.
“There isn’t a large private civil bar here in the capital city. Even if you have the money, the lawyers aren’t here,” Nettleton said.
So when he arrived this past October, his first task was to plough through a big stack of legal files – 60 to 100 of them – from people from all over Nunavut whose problems couldn’t be handled by the criminal and family law specialists who work for Nunavut’s small legal aid service.
Even before he cleared those old files from his desk, new work generated by people in Nunavut’s underserved communities started pouring in.
“Meanwhile people got wind of the fact that there is now a staff poverty lawyer, so new files started coming in,” Nettleton said.
Now that the legal services board is making a concerted effort to tell people that they can get legal help in many new areas, even more work is coming in.
And Nettleton says two of the biggest areas where people need legal help is in the two areas where most Nunavummiut are utterly dependent on an all-powerful but sometimes callous territorial government: housing and health care delivery.
“Housing is, if not the number one issue, way up there,” Nettleton said.
That includes many people who need legal representation when faced with eviction orders from local housing associations.
But it also includes a growing number of private homeowners who can’t pay their mortgages. When they fall into a financial hole too big to climb out of, the bank seizes their house and evicts them.
Nettleton handled one such case about a month ago.
“The lawyer acting on behalf of the bank was looking for a final order essentially kicking this man and his child out of the house. He was weeping on the other end of the phone as he faced the prospect of being evicted from his home in the dead of winter,” Nettleton said.
In that case, Nettleton managed to persuade a judge to hold off on the eviction for four months – which means the man and his son will be homeless at a warmer time of the year.
At the same time, Nettleton says he also sees “quite a number” of personal bankruptcies. Because of Nunavut’s high cost of living, it’s easy for people to rack up more debt than they’re able to repay.
“People fall behind and they charge their credit cards up and they reach a point of no return – and there is no return. This is a tough environment to bounce back from any kind of a financial hole because it’s so darn expensive here just to get by.”
Nettleton is not able to act as a bankruptcy trustee. But he’s able to give free advice and information to bankrupt people, and he’s able to help people file and compile information for an out-of-territory bankruptcy trustee.
“They work through their issues with my clients. It doesn’t cost my clients anything.”
And Nettleton says he’s able to help people challenge unfair Nunavut government housing policies, such as those that hurt women who are non-signatories to social housing tenancy agreements held by male spousal partners.
When those relationships break down, it’s often the woman and her children who get the boot.
“Let’s say the female partner in that relationship is a non-signatory and she’s living there with the children. Within weeks she can be evicted from public housing and has no recourse. That’s one of the policies that we’ve been challenging.”
Nettleton also said a number of people have approached him with claims of medical malpractice.
He said he does not have the expertise or the resources to pursue medical malpractice claims. But he is able to help people assemble an outline of their claim and then review it with a lawyer in the South who specializes in such work.
If the out-of-territory lawyer believes there’s evidence to support a legitimate claim, then they would likely take the case on a contingency basis. That means that they would agree not to be paid until after the case is resolved, when they would receive an agreed percentage of the financial settlement.
Other areas of Nettleton’s work include estates, personal injury claims, workers’ compensation claims, social assistance claims and complaints involving the Canada Pension Plan and the Canada Revenue Agency.
His constituency work as a politician, when he sat as a Liberal MLA in B.C. legislature between 1996 and 2001, and then as independent between 2001 and 2003, gave him a lot of insight into the inner workings of government and the needs of ordinary people.
His work now brings him into contact with large numbers of Nunavummiut – an experience he loves.
“The people have been marvelous, warm and accepting and forgiving. I consider myself privileged to be here,” Nettleton said.
What is poverty law?
The form of legal practice known as “poverty law” helps low-income people deal with a wide range of problems where they might need legal help.
* Workers Compensation Board claims
* Housing issues (public, staff, private)
* Human Rights Tribunal complaints
* Health care delivery
* Social assistance
Civil law• Personal injury claims
* Small claims
* Medical malpractice
* Wrongful dismissal and labour relations
* Consumer complaints
* Foreclosures and evictions (housing)