February 01, 2007

Trapped in the Spider's Web

Trapped in the spider's web
Advocate jailed for helping people in court. By Chris Arsenault

A New Brunswick man who spends his days helping the poor and lawyerless defend themselves in court was recently sentenced to jail for providing "lawyer-like services."

Vaughn Barnett, a Fredericton based anti-poverty activist who holds a law degree, was sentenced to ten days in prison on Thursday, January 18. The New Brunswick Law Society launched the prosecution against him, charging Barnett with contempt of court for practicing law without a licence for the last several years.

The case, though thoroughly unreported, raises some important questions for the legal establishment.

"An ordinary citizen is allowed to do all the things I do, but I am being deprived of those rights because I know the law," said Vaughn Barnett during a January 16 court appearance. According to unconfirmed reports, the legal advocate is being held in the Saint John provincial jail. He was unavailable for comment.

Regular folks like Barnett cannot legally call themselves lawyers. However, anyone can defend themselves in court, file complaints and discuss legal matter with other citizens.

Barnett's supporters think the Law Society saw a threat from the pro-bono rabble-rouser because he was undercutting their monopoly on legal matters.

"Lawless are they that make their wills their law," wrote William Shakespeare way back when. The New Brunswick Law Society has a clear economic, if not political, interest in maintaining a firm grip on legal knowledge and the power that comes with it. According to witnesses who attended Barnett's court hearing, the Law Society and the whole legal establishment are trying to turn their will into the law.

"The judge and council were joking together when the law society brought the contempt of court against him [Mr. Barnett]," said George Dalli, a janitor and friend of Barnett's who attended court hearings.

"Court was a joke. The judge was talking down to Barnett, alleging he didn't have enough respect for the institution of the court itself." The legal establishment didn't like Barnett because he raised fundamental questions about how power is dispersed in the courts.

In 2003, Barnett gave an interview about his legal work, saying, "The concept of radicalism itself means going to the roots of a system and, legally, it means going to basic constitutional principles or principles of justice and the common good that the law is based on."

"As I understand, Vaughn has tried to join the law society, but they refused him on character grounds," said Dalli. "They [the Law Society] put an injunction saying he wasn't allowed to practice law. But there are constitutional rights allowing him to do certain things: being an agent in certain types of court, filing different documents like complaints - he could only file joint complaints with other people - he couldn't go forward with the complaint himself."

In a communique about Barnett's imprisonment, the Fredericton Social Network wrote, "Many have approached Barnett when they feel they have nowhere else to turn, a feeling that cannot be detached from the fact that N.B. has an inaccessible Legal Aid system, arguably the worst in the country, with no Pro-Bono system."

The premise to every reasonable legal code, since Hammurabi penned the first one in ancient Babylon, is that people are equal before the law.

But as one Judge Sturgess noted, "Justice is open to everyone in the same way as the Ritz Hotel." Vaughn Barnett tried to help average New Brunswickers gain entry to the exclusive legal club. For that, he was sent to jail.

Back in the 1800s a French thinker named Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote "They [laws] are spider webs for the rich and mighty, steel chains for the poor and weak." It looks like the legal web just caught itself another pesky fly and others may get entangled sooner rather than later.

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