An Ontario lawyer is voicing his frustration at roadblocks to his plan to offer free legal services to Toronto’s homeless.
The people Mukhtiar Dahiya is looking to help aren’t able to afford the services of a lawyer and can’t get legal aid because of a lack of address and identification, he says.
However, he’s not able to offer his services because the Law Society of Upper Canada won’t waive his licence fee if he volunteers on his own rather than through a charity.
Dahiya, previously a lawyer in India, moved to Canada in the 1990s and attended law school in Ottawa. After finishing his degree in 1995, he did his articles in 1996 with a Toronto firm.
However, an accident soon after left him in failing health, leading him to go on disability and not seek admission to the bar at the time. “I was feeling lonely. Because my grandfather was a barrister and my brothers-in-law are barristers, I know nothing other than practising law. So what I did, I started helping homeless people,” he says.
Dahiya went to the law society for permission to write his bar exam in 2006 and was called to the bar in September of that year. He then started going to court to defend the homeless in summary trials as an agent.
However, because he was on disability, he couldn’t afford his insurance or licensing fee.
Last May, Dahiya sent a letter to Gavin MacKenzie, then treasurer of the law society, explaining his situation along with a request for the LSUC to pay his licence fee so that he could “help these people in the street for free as a volunteer lawyer.”
He says he gave assurances that no money or billing would be involved and that if the law society felt he wasn’t competent or he was in poor health, it should appoint him a mentor.
In June 2008, the LSUC amended two of its bylaws permitting lawyers in the 25- and 50-per-cent fee categories who wish to provide pro bono legal services through approved Pro Bono Law Ontario programs to apply for an exemption from paying the full annual fee. The change mirrored the LawPRO exemption for pro bono practice through PBLO.
Subsequently, Dahiya attended a training session for free duty counsel and another on working as a volunteer lawyer run by PBLO.
He says he told them he wanted to start what he calls the City Law Centre to help people who are “shunned by the legal profession.”
“I will involve social workers and I will help them to return to society. This is what I want to do. I’m an old man, 58 years old, [and] I don’t need money. I have seen everything.”
However, he doesn’t want to join a charity in order to launch his services, something he says he’s been told he would have to do.
“I said no, I won’t join any charity because I know what I want to do. Through charity, I cannot achieve anything. Then I’m their employee, then I’m at their mercy. I want to shake things up because these people, they need a special kind of protection and help.”
PBLO executive director Lynn Burns says the organization can’t comment on whether the law society or LawPRO will amend their rules to facilitate individual lawyers wanting to provide pro bono legal services on an ad hoc basis.
She explains that the law society and LawPRO’s provisions for lawyers volunteering through PBLO-approved programs “are predicated on the understanding that these projects operate according to best practices which guarantee the allocation of sufficient administrative resources to adequately train and support volunteer lawyers on the one hand and ensure that clients receive high-quality legal services provided by competent lawyers in an ethical and professional manner on the other.”
A spokesperson for the law society says the LSUC has no plans to change its current rules that are “designed to ensure that clients receive an appropriate level of legal services provided by fully competent and professional lawyers and paralegals.”
At the moment, Dahiya says he is paying 25 per cent of the law society fee in order to keep his licence.
“They say that if you will practise or you will help or you will talk to destitute people in the street, you are practising, you will pay 100 per cent of the licence fee, and you will have to pay insurance, too, which I cannot,” he says. He adds that besides having his fees waived, he wants free space to run his service, likely from the city or provincial government. “The rest I will manage. No money will be involved at any stage.”
In the meantime, Dahiya says he notarizes documents for senior citizens or anybody who can’t afford representation, not as a lawyer but as a neighbour.
“I just don’t represent them in courts anymore. I don’t tell them that I’m a lawyer. I just tell them that I just have a licence and I have two law degrees,” he says.
His preference, however, is to work with the homeless. “They need help, they deserve help, and their constitutional rights are trampled.”