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Meeting challenges head-on

|Written By Helen Burnett

Working within a particular community means addressing the challenges those communities face, says Courtney Betty. And dealing with those challenges may not always be politically correct but it also doesn’t mean attacking “the system.” On the contrary, Betty says his firm tries to bring people together to create a greater understanding.

“It makes it very interesting in that we have found on many of the issues we have had to speak out on, we’ve found a much better [response] from the mainstream, which recognizes that we’re not just here to criticize, we’re here to build bridges between the various communities,” says Betty, who is the lawyer who became the voice of the grieving Manners family after 14-year-old Jordan Manners was gunned down in the hallway of his northwest Toronto high school.

Betty’s firm, Betty’s Law Office, is one of the few law firms in the city targeting the multicultural community as a whole, doing a lot of work specifically within the Chinese and Caribbean communities in English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Cantonese in the areas of real estate, civil, criminal, and immigration law.

However, Betty’s career began on a different track, when he articled with the Federal Department of Justice with a specific interest in constitutional cases. He was then recruited by the Government of Jamaica to head up its competition tribunal with a focus on telecommunication deregulation.

While working in community-based legal services is not something he planned, Betty says it evolved from both his interest in constitutional law and his volunteer work, primarily with young people.

“I was always concerned in terms of communities and individual rights and that stemmed from my love for constitutional law,” he says.

“I just found that, primarily within the Caribbean community, there was just such a lack of knowledge about their individual and legal rights, that many people were just not fully aware of their legal rights and therefore, to many extents, not being properly serviced,” he says.

While Betty adds that the challenges are great, and that being able to carry out this type of work on an ongoing basis is personally demanding, among the most gratifying parts of his practice includes a phone-in legal show (on CHRY 105.5, Sat. 7:30-8 p.m.) that he has been doing for the last two years.

“When you speak to groups and you see them [say], ‘Wow this is possible, really, I have these rights?’ That part of it I find extremely satisfying,” he says.

Also rewarding is the opportunity to take on situations that most lawyers would possibly not look at, he says.

For example, the recent case of Shaquan Cadougan, a four-year-old boy who was shot two years ago in community housing in the troubled Jane-Finch area of the city. Now six years old, Cadougan still has two bullets inside his body that cannot be removed. He is expected to have long-term mobility problems.

His family has filed a $4-million lawsuit against the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, accusing it of gross negligence. Slashing a security budget by $4 million the year before the shooting and reducing the number of security staff from 200 to 80 allowed the drive-by shooting to occur, the lawsuit alleges.

“My discussion with many other lawyers, the feeling was that really and truly there was not a basis for a claim against the landlord.”

He adds that working alongside another law firm for a year and a half and doing the research, they found that there was actually a strong legal argument to be made.

“In a normal situation, most law firms would have automatically just said, ‘Well, you know, you live in that environment, therefore there’s no basis for you to be able to file a claim.’

“Situations like that where potentially you can create a framework for individuals who are economically or socially challenged that normally the legal system would not even be a consideration for them,” he says.

Betty and the other lawyers at the firm are also involved in the community, including speaking engagements with community organizations or business gatherings, which he says is important for lawyers in this area of law.

“Even if it’s not an issue of, lets say, doing legal work, I just think that we have a responsibility to disseminate very basic information that’s going to empower the public whenever we get an opportunity to do that.

“Its also a way of trying to empower these communities to advance their own development,” he says.

“We see that as important, but we’re not here to be sacrificial lambs, we definitely do focus as well on the business component of running and operating our practice,” he adds.

Undeniably, while ther.e is a social component to being able to provide proper legal services to clients in their own languages, Betty adds that, realistically, there is also a business element. “When I look at the projections, Statistics Canada, in terms of the growth that’s going to take place within the ethnic communities, we plan to be there as those demands are going to grow,” he says.

There aren’t too many firms around that focus on providing services to the multicultural community, but this model is sure to expand in the next decade, says Betty. Although his firm services all communities, he says that, generally, large and mid-sized law firms have not really targeted their services toward the ethnic communities.

“I think that firms are going to find that they’re not going to have a choice, based on the projections for growth, where in effect the ethnic communities, I believe, in another 10 or 15 years will form the majority of the population.”

“So I think that for the future you’re going to find firms that will develop different sections within their own firms, but to be able to provide services to various communities in their own languages, which is really a starting point, but also I think it’s to have that cultural sensitivity in dealing with people from various backgrounds,” he says.                                  

This is the first in our new Community Advocates series that will be running each week this summer in both the printed and online versions of

Law Times featuring profiles of lawyers from around the province.

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