President’s Blog
November 04, 2019

This is the third installment of my "Unsung Heroes" column. I want to introduce you to Brian Coleman, a Dalhousie law grad who was called to the bar in 1969 and articled in the lower mainland with Hean Wylie.

Around the time he was called to the bar, there was a push for firms to take on pro bono cases, and predominately criminal cases (the Legal Aid Society, as it was then called, was not created until 1973). So Brian, as the junior member of the firm, got to do all of the criminal pro bono cases. He supplemented his pro bono work with a general practice that included conveyancing and divorce.

In 1973 the Legal Aid Society was formed and they opened an office in Brian's firm's building. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Brian ultimately started his own firm practising exclusively criminal defence work. He received a $25 honourarium per case. Forty-six years later, he still has a predominantly legal aid practice. And like most dedicated lawyers, he takes on more work than he should. 

His contributions and achievements are legion — he has appeared in all levels of court, he has taken on many, many articled students, he has mentored a lot of young lawyers, and he has taken on those very difficult, ugly cases that most of us would have run from.

Brian does this work for a number of reasons:

  • he finds the work challenging and rewarding;
  • he wants to seek justice for his clients;
  • he wants to help others. (He credits his mother for passing on the "help others" gene.)

He does not do this work for the money, and he tells me that it has never been about the money.

When asked what was on his "wish list" it was short: an enhanced legal aid scheme and the realization that some clients are better served by a medical facility than jail.

Brian sees the strength in our legal aid system. He is in court almost every day and he sees so many gifted, enthusiastic young lawyers practising criminal defence work and it is these young lawyers who are legal aid's major resource. But, sooner or later they will leave because they cannot make a living doing legal aid work. Brian is quick to point our that no one is asking to get rich — just to be able to put food on the table and pay their mortgage.

Brian says there are a number of things that keep him going, like the "good stress" of courtroom work. Or old friends like Richard Peck, QC and others that he's worked with over the years. Brian points to the camaraderie in the criminal defence bar as a highlight of his chosen field.

His faith in the justice system and the presumption of innocence also contribute to his longevity at the bar. And he believes in his clients. By and large, they all have some redeeming features, says Brian. He likes most of his clients — they are not hard to like, although some are a tad exasperating. He says that if you work with them long enough you understand why they are they way they are. Brian observes that you rarely meet truly evil people.

Brian does not think in terms of guilt or innocence. He feels his job is to ensure that Crown and the judge do their jobs properly. "If judges try to be social workers, and police try to be lawyers, and lawyers try to be judges, then the system does not work. But it's a pretty decent system."

Perhaps Brian's dedication and commitment are best described by Mr. Peck:

Since the creation of the original Legal Aid Society in the early 1970's, Brian Coleman has dedicated himself to the defence of the indigent in criminal matters. He has done this tirelessly, handling cases of all sizes from causing a disturbance to murder. He has never turned away a client and treats them all with respect. He believes, to the core of his being, in the values which animate our system of criminal justice and in the worth and dignity of the individual. Kindness is his strong suit. After nigh on a half century in the trenches, representing clients at all levels of court, he is still going strong. He deserves our respect and he deserves to be recognized by the profession for his unfailing commitment to justice.

Well said, Mr. Peck.

Brian Coleman has no plans to retire. Thank you, Brian. You inspire us.