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Canadians step up for suffering Roma

|Written By Robert Todd

A marginalized group in Romania has used the expertise and generosity of lawyers from McCarthy Tétrault LLP and University of Toronto law students for a $877,000 (€564,000) settlement at the European Court of Human Rights.

Junior Sirivar says pro bono work like this case is very rewarding.

The case involves Roma people in the Romanian town of Bolintin Deal who were targeted in a 1991 pogrom that left 24 families beaten by non-Romas and forced to flee their homes.

The town’s priest and mayor were among the group of 2,000 perpetrators who burned and destroyed the Roma homes, according to the court’s decision. The families have not been able to return home for 18 years.

Junior Sirivar, an associate at McCarthys who acted on the case, says the lead complainant, Emilian Niculae, fled to Canada and sought the help of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program.

The IHRP turned to McCarthys because it needed the firm’s resources to adequately prosecute the case, says Sirivar. He was joined pro bono on the case by McCarthys’ colleague Mark Freiman.

Also pro bono, Mark Berenblut, senior vice president of National Economic Research Associates, Inc., helped value the Roma financial losses.

The group’s efforts led to an admission by the Romanian government that it was responsible for various breaches of the European Convention. The court accepted the government’s admission that it failed to live up to its agreement to prohibit torture, and to provide citizens the right to a fair trial, to respect for private and family life, an effective remedy, and prohibition of discrimination.

On top of agreeing to pay the settlement, which will be divided between 24 applicants, the Romanian government agreed to take steps to battle discrimination and raise living conditions for the Roma community.

“I truly appreciate the efforts of the IHRP and Mr. Sirivar’s team,” says Niculae. “I feel glad that one day we can prove what happened in my village, the racism and the violence and injustice against my people.”

McCarthys has built a strong pro bono culture, which has helped it become the only national law firm partner of Pro Bono Students Canada. It is also the first large Canadian firm to receive the status of “Partner Without Borders” from Lawyers Without Borders Canada.

Sirivar says there is a list of reasons why his firm wanted to lend its expertise to the case.

“One is it’s right - it’s just right to do it,” he says.

“You have, particularly as a lawyer in the circumstances that lawyers on Bay Street find themselves, a lawyer who has the privileges of working on some of the best files and the commensurate pay that comes with that, and where we sit in our own communities, we’re in a position to do this and in a position to help. We have to and ought to be doing it, because we’re in the best position to do it.”

Pro bono work in cases like this is also personally gratifying, says Sirivar.

“It’s absolutely rewarding to feel that you’ve done something for somebody who deserves to have it done to them, and had you not done it they may not have had somebody to do it for them,” he says.

He says pro bono work also reminds younger lawyers that there is more to the profession than billing for hours and getting paid for them.

“You talk about work-life balance and getting something that’s rewarding - this is a great way to do that,” says Sirivar.

University of Toronto law professor Ed Morgan, the IHRP’s director, says the case gave students critical experience.

“They got to see how the European Court of Human Rights functions, which is one of the premier human rights institutions in the world today,” he says. “It had some of the advantages of being an international institution, using some of their international law education, while at the same time its procedures were quite similar to what we’d be used to in a Canadian court.

“So it had both an element of foreignness and an element of familiarity for the students.”

Morgan adds that Niculae struggled to find pro bono legal services in Europe, where he says the pro bono culture has not developed to the level it has in North America.

“It was a good fit,” says Morgan.

It was crucial to have McCarthys’ backing on the complex case, says Morgan. On top of the firm’s legal expertise, the IHRP also relied heavily on its administrative resources.

“When the clinic is doing a brief intervention, or an amicus appearance, we don’t necessarily need a law firm, but each time we represent clients, we need to partner with a law firm so we can provide the clients with the proper service that they deserve. And McCarthys was excellent in that regard,” he says.

At the end of the day, it’s all about getting positive results, and Morgan is more than satisfied with the court’s award to the Roma.

“The European Court of Human Rights awards modest quantities of damages, and for that court this is quite a good result that we got,” he says.

  • Silvia Valdman
    While it's commendable the work that was done on this case by the "Bay Street" lawyers and firms involved, it would also be nice for law times to feature the tremendous amount of "pro bono" work that most Legal Aid refugee and immigration lawyers do in Ontario EVERYDAY on account of Legal Aid cuts and because Legal Aid lawyers often have to work well beyond the "tariff" amount allowed under Legal Aid Ontario time alloted for cases.

    Silvia Valdman
    Refugee + Immigration Lawyer
    Ottawa and Toronto
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