President's View

Dugald Christie: One lawyer's legacy

Robert W. McDiarmid, QCRobert W. McDiarmid, QC

The untimely death of Dugald Christie has generated an outpouring of praise for his dedication to the promotion of pro bono work amongst our profession. Regrettably, there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in the profession’s participation in pro bono programs.

Until relatively recently, there were very few pro bono clinics in our province. The two law schools have well-run and well-attended programs, but they are limited by geography. Various community organizations have also operated legal clinics on a sporadic basis throughout BC. In Kamloops, where I live and work, the local cable TV outlet once had a live program providing free legal advice on the air.

In 1985, the Salvation Army added to its lengthy history of assisting the indigent with legal matters by making space available for Dugald Christie to do pro bono work in their community and family service department. Three years later, with Dugald’s assistance, they began an expansion of their free legal advice program and now operate more than 20 clinics around the province (www.probono.ca). Dugald worked there for 13 years.

In the summer of 1998, Dugald — on the first of his great bicycle missions — rode to Ottawa and burned his robes on the steps of the Supreme Court of Canada to protest the costs and delays that impede access to justice for many of our citizens. When he got back to Vancouver, he then convinced the profession to endorse a resolution at our Annual General Meeting encouraging every lawyer to participate in a pro bono program and asking the Benchers to further the development of pro bono services throughout the province.

In 1999, Dugald added to his pro bono legacy by becoming involved in a significant way with the Western Canada Society to Access Justice (www.accessjustice.ca). He helped that organization establish more than 60 new legal clinics, including programs in northern and central BC — areas where the need for legal help was critical.

Meanwhile, the Benchers made the 1998 AGM resolution a priority and established a joint Law Society / Canadian Bar Association (BC Branch) pro bono committee which, in turn, led to the creation of Pro Bono Law of BC (www.probononet.bc.ca), a registered charity whose role is to facilitate opportunities for the effective provision of pro bono services throughout the province. The Law Society also augmented its insurance program so that uninsured lawyers, such as in-house counsel and government employees, have professional liability insurance coverage when they volunteer for programs approved by Pro Bono Law of BC.

In addition, Pro Bono Law of BC has set up a fund that will pay for disbursements in some pro bono cases and there are now conflict-checking systems in place to ensure pro bono volunteers are not involved in matters that conflict with their law firms or employers.

In short, Dugald Christie’s goal is now possible. All lawyers in this province — whether insured or not, whether in private practice or working for government — now have the ability to volunteer for a pro bono program in their community.

Sadly, there hasn’t been enough uptake. There are still a large number of people who need legal help but cannot afford the services of a lawyer. To make matters worse, there are some areas of law — notably those involving regulatory agencies such as residential tenancies and environmental matters — where the demand is even greater.

While I firmly believe there is no substitute for a properly funded legal aid program and while I know that more lawyers have volunteered because of the legal aid budget cuts, I also believe that lawyers, as members of an ancient, honourable and learned profession, have a duty to support those who need help.

As we ponder Dugald’s untimely death, I ask all of my colleagues throughout this province to find ways to volunteer their skills and expertise. Opportunities can be found anywhere there is a need. They range from walk-in clinics, such as those run by the Salvation Army or Access Justice, to Pro Bono Law of BC’s roster programs, to volunteering for an advocacy group. Some law firms even run their own pro bono programs. Pro Bono Law of BC and the Attorney General’s Ministry have also drafted a model policy to encourage more pro bono participation by public sector lawyers and I will be making my best efforts to get that policy finalized.

Dugald Christie’s commitment to pro bono must not die with him. His cause must become our profession’s cause. Volunteer!