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Needed: More small-town lawyers | Neha Chugh

Monday, September 19, 2022 @ 11:06 AM | By Neha Chugh

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Neha Chugh %>
Neha Chugh
It was an average court appearance almost a decade ago, I was in the early stages of my new solo practice in Cornwall, Ont. I had gone to law school and articled in Toronto and spent the first two years of private practice in Ottawa. My spouse’s new job had taken me to Cornwall, nestled between Ottawa and Montreal, on the St. Lawrence River.

My client, a youth from a very small Eastern Ontario village, had mental health issues and struggled with schooling. This youth’s ability to access services was severely limited by availability and accessibility, the nearest interventions being over an hour away by car. My concerns were noble, arising out of the mandates from the Youth Criminal Justice Act. The realities of the situation were all consuming in light of my eagerness on behalf of the youth.

My urban bias was strong, and my urban saviour complex was even stronger. “In Toronto, your honour … .” And “The courts in Ottawa, your honour … .”

I was quickly and sternly reminded that we were not in Toronto or in Ottawa. 

This was part of my initiation into rural practice. 

Urban criminal law issues like transit fare theft and shopping mall heists were replaced with rural issues like driving a tractor while prohibited and cultivation of marijuana on farmland.

It is exactly these disparities in services that require extra attention and tailored approaches by practitioners who are knowledgeable about local needs, procedure and practice.

Rural practice is important. End of story. As my more senior colleagues inch closer to retirement, I feel the increasing pressure of the sheer need for local lawyers.

Post-COVID, it has become blatantly obvious that the need for rural legal practitioners has grown, especially practitioners who accept legal aid or who are willing to work at sliding scale rates. The Toronto hourly rate has to be revisited if one wants to have a successful rural practice.

Let’s take the example of a family law case in Cornwall. Very few lawyers in Cornwall accept Legal Aid Ontario mandates, and of those who do take them, there are waiting lists and caps to the number of clients on a lawyer’s case load. If both sides of the litigation have certificates, the parties may not be accessing the lawyer of their first, second, or third choice. Rather, the party accepts the lawyer who is available, who has time in their calendar and is willing to work for Legal Aid rates.

Compound with this situation the following factors: French language requirements in Eastern Ontario, the urgency and complexity of a matter, Indigenous law, history and tradition, transportation and accessibility issues, and not just rural communities but remote communities as well.

These intersecting issues are part of the learning curve, not reasons to dismiss the notions of rural practice.

Consider this: the cost of living in Cornwall is lower than our major urban counterparts, with housing being affordable, available, and accessible. Access to major Metropolitan centres like Montreal, Ottawa and New York is easy. Want to jet off to Vermont for the weekend? No problem, it is a short drive over the border. Want to catch the jazz festival in Montreal or Canada Day in Ottawa? No problem, just an hour away in either direction. Want to leave work at 5 p.m., not have to sit on the 401 for hours to get to multiple courts, and be on a first name basis with your local librarian? You got it.

It's true — we don’t have a Michelin restaurant guide in Cornwall. And one of the reasons my assistant recently found herself late for work was because she was stuck behind a slow-moving truck with a trailer filled with manure. But this part of the world boasts big wide-open spaces, restaurants where everyone knows your name, and the waitress knows your favourite drink order.

With the loss of a strong, vibrant and local bar, the following issues become more prominent:

Access to justice is adversely affected as litigants may not have counsel or have to wait for counsel. As we have seen through provincial budget cuts to youth detention centres and jails, services may be centralized in urban centres for cost saving, affecting accessibility to local jails. Courts like Cornwall don’t have a dedicated and local forensic psychiatrist, or a mental health or drug treatment court like our urban counterparts.

When I lamented about my youth client and his inability to access mental health services rurally, the court hinted that perhaps a s. 15 challenge was the answer. Essentially, the suggestion was that I should argue that our local court and youth did not benefit from the same services as an urban comparison. At the time, that particular case was not the right one. And while services have continued to be diminished throughout the years through funding cuts and underprioritization, there are rays of hope.

Take for example R. v. Turtle [2020] O.J. No. 4259 where lawyers argued on behalf of defendants who were unable to access jail facilities because of their rural location in Pikangikum First Nation territory, a fly-in community hours away from the nearest jail in the city of Kenora, were exposed to a breach of their s. 15 equality rights. The unavailability of intermittent sentences to on-reserve members of the community was determined to be a breach of s. 15 of the Charter, compared to other Canadians similarly situated. My takeaway from this case?  Dedicated lawyers, familiar with issues affecting rural, isolated or Indigenous communities can do amazing and unique work for Canadian communities. 

Most importantly, what is needed are the presence of lawyers to provide effective representation for the cases that matter to our rural residents. It took me time to fall in love with the small city where I practise law, the vast farmland I drive past to get to work, the rural community approach. The romantic notions and Canadiana that I have described took me time to become accustomed to. I am now the biggest advocate for bringing lawyers to rural Ontario to serve our community and fill the access to justice gap that is widening every day.

Based in Cornwall, Ont., Neha Chugh, a criminal lawyer, started Chugh Law in 2014. She also serves as prosecutor in the Akwesasne Court, assists with provincial offences prosecutions with the City of Cornwall and is an instructor at Iohahi:io Akwesasne Education and Training Institute. Chugh was appointed as the Law Foundation of Ontario’s representative on the board of governors of the Law Commission of Ontario.   

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, 
The Lawyer’s Daily, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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