The Hill: Lawyers take on Quebec government with dignity

From a distance, it could have been a colony of giant black ants moving relentlessly down the street in full determination towards some invisible foe.

More than 500 Quebec lawyers and notaries put on their black gowns and marched last week in silent protest against the autocratic behaviour of the Quebec government through Bill 78.

It was an unusual show of legal strength and determination.

Very few carried signs and none had noisemakers. These were dignified, silent protesters, not noisy students banging on cooking pots.

There were plenty of women lawyers in their resplendent gowns balancing themselves on elegant high-heeled shoes as the march turned down the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal.

The Quebec lawyers were marching against Bill 78, Premier Jean Charest’s emergency legislation aimed at forcing striking university and college students back to school.

The lawyers say the government must rescind the bill, but their reasons are quite different from the students’. For the students, the issue is rising tuition fees.

For the lawyers, it’s the bill itself that’s at issue as it subverts the rule of law and, as they say, “It is a disproportionate restraint on freedom of expression, association, and peaceful protest.”

It turns judges into stooges of the government and restricts protesters to whatever protest the police and, by extension, the provincial government will allow by forcing them to obtain a permit for every protest of more than a handful of people and making all participants liable when only a few people turn violent.

The lawyers see themselves as standing up against the law. They couldn’t care less about the cost of university tuition fees that are already the lowest in the country. What bothers them is the Charest government bringing in a despicable law just to break down the students.

Dozens of lawyers have volunteered to fight the students’ case in the courts, many of them on a pro bono basis. When a lawyer takes on a case pro bono, you know there’s a cause involved.

What banging cooking pots and pans with soup ladles won’t accomplish for the students a sound legal defence may achieve in a court of law.

The lawyers explained to the public ahead of time that their march would be in silence and they’d wear their gowns “to remind us of the inherent dignity of our profession.”

The lawyers marched after giving police advance notice and a precise route they’d take. Who wants a police complaint against them? The lawyers timed the march to begin after the work day. Who wants to lose billable hours?

Hundreds of bystanders stood in awe in the evening dusk watching the lawyers parade through the downtown and applauding as they passed. When was the last time you saw lawyers applauded by the public?

Not everybody was happy with the march. Quebec Transport Minister Pierre Moreau was furious when he heard that one of the organizers was François Desroches, a lawyer with the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec, a Crown corporation.

Moreau ranted outside the National Assembly: “Since he’s a lawyer, not only is this a grave lack of judgment on his part but also a lack of loyalty and duty under the articles 10 and 11 of the Public Service Act, and I hope very sincerely that the individual in question will receive a sanction fitting the lack of judgment he has shown.”

Moreau wasn’t through. He added: “I believe that taxpayers will agree that he lacked judgment and should be severely sanctioned.”

Desroches may escape the severe sanction his boss promises. When organizing marches, he uses the name François Desroches but when he’s practising law at the office, he uses his full name, François Desroches-Lapointe.

Moreau had better watch how he writes up the complaint against the young march organizer.

He’s not a lawyer for nothing.  
Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill. His e-mail address is [email protected].
For more, see "Quebec should narrow protest bill" and "Quebec lawyers take to streets to protest Bill 78."

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