Roger writing the LAWmag

Misguided Well-Intentioned Lawyers: Discover Haiti!

Who's in Haiti?So many so-called charitable or “access to justice” initiatives championed by bar associations or law societies run hollow.

By far, the emptiest is the pro bono craze under which lawyers who charge everybody else $500 an hour, work for free for random winners of a legal services lottery.

At the same time, the law societies and bar associations do little to solve the problem of exorbitant lawyer hourly fees, such as seed money for co-op or non-profit law firms.

The Belgium-based Lawyers Without Borders (LWOB or avocats sans frontières) is another example.

It’s hard to imagine what role a team of lawyers – pro bono or otherwise – can play in the immediate aftermath of a war or a natural disaster. Probably the last thing a dying person pinned down by concrete wants is an attorney business card handed in through the rubble.

In quick-step behind lawyers and a candidate for LawMazing: The Believe it or Not of the Law: there is even a Notaires Sans Frontieres (Notaries Without Borders).

January 12, 2010

Haiti was devastated by a 7.3 Richter-scale earthquake on January 12, 2010, with over 150,000 dead.

The courthouse in the capital of Haiti did not survive the earthquake, nor did the National Palace.

Many notary offices were, in the tradition of a civil law system, the registrars and archivers of legal documents; all lost when the offices were reduced to rubble.

The main national prison fell, releasing hundreds of Haiti’s worse criminals upon a suffering people.

Even with UN peacekeepers seemingly everywhere, a dark cloud of anarchy hangs over the Caribbean state.

Lawyers To the Rescue?

Many well-intentioned and well-to-do lawyers sought to help.

The initial reaction of lawyer charity groups was common sense. The international LWOB states on its website:

“... our role in regions in crisis typically begins when the humanitarian crisis subsides. For this reason ... LWOB resources and programming cannot help those in Haiti at this time.”

But that’s not stopping a Canadian LWOB team. Their Made-in Canada, shrink-wrap justice system has already been deployed to Haiti.

Two Quebecers retired Court of Appeal judge Louise Otis, and her former law clerk, Concordia University professor Eric Reiter, have fashioned a survivalist emergency justice system with tent-based courts and judges enabled to mediate or issue emergency temporary orders in family law and stolen property cases. The product seems to be a good fit as both Quebec and Haiti have civil law systems.

Called Frontline Justice, it was first detailed in a 2006 Virginia Journal of International Law article:

“.. a model for rapidly re-establishing a functioning justice system in societies shattered by crisis ... based on the quick deployment of justice shelters in communities, in which trained local jurists give legal information and advice, and local judges issue emergency safeguard orders and mediate disputes between parties. The mandate of the justice shelters is broad, and comprises civil, family, and administrative as well as criminal matters. The shelters are designed to rebuild confidence in the administration of justice by addressing all the justice needs of the local population, rather than limiting themselves to criminal matters or transitional justice issues .... Front-Line Justice ... offers a way to address emergency justice issues, but also to move forward towards the re-establishment of working and accepted permanent institutions of justice.”

Dubbed the “judicial red cross”, the Quebec bar donated $100,000 to the delivery of the model to Haiti.

Nothing is perfect:

  • Disconcerting to those that thought they were paying for case law on a cost-recovery basis in Quebec, the law report publisher, Crown corporation SOQUIJ, is amongst the financiers; and
  • The emergency business plan includes shipping the executive director of the Quebec chapter of LWOB, Pascal Paradis, to Haiti to “assess the needs on the ground”. That’s money thrown away, a wasted seat on an airplane and another mouth to feed for a devastated nation.

Discover Haiti!

Paradis will butt heads at the Port-au-Prince airport with other well-intentioned but misguided lawyers.

The Florida’s Haitian Lawyers Association, the American Bar Association and the International Bar Association (IBA) are all throwing cash at whatever travel, food, Noxzema, bottled water, etc. - 2 carry-on bags please -  that on-location staff will require, while they each stake a claim to fix disparate parts of the Haitian justice system.

The IBA wants your money because:

“The IBA has a strong track record of helping to build judicial infrastructures in developing countries, which makes us confident in offering to play a role in the reconstruction of Haiti.”

The American Bar Association posted this on its website:

“The ABA Rule of Law Initiative is currently recruiting for a number of positions for an anticipated rule of law program in Haiti. This program is a rapid response to the country's recent earthquake, and resulting threats to its legal system. The program will support local justice sector institutions in processing criminal cases and civil petitions during the country's ongoing recovery process.”

Heaven Forbid

When 10 American Baptists were stopped moving 33 orphans to the neighbouring Dominican Republic, Haiti’s will found a way and a set of kidnapping charges was quickly word-processed. Intact and vacant prison cells miraculously emerged from the rubble. A living, healthy judge was found – Bernard Saint-Vil, and a criminal hearing held at Port-au-Prince. The American detainees even had Haitian lawyers: Aviol Fleurant and Louis-Gary Lessade, the latter Haiti’s former justice minister.

And ... well ... lawyers are lawyers.

Edwin Coq, a lawyer based in Port-au-Prince, initially told the American Press that he was working for the detainees pro bono. But then it was revealed that he had demanded a $60,000 retainer. He suddenly quit when the money wasn’t paid up front. The Dominican Republic lawyer that replaced him, Jorge Pueleo, is quoted by the New York Times:

“Mr. Coq had kept increasing the amount of money he wanted and had suggested that he would use the funds to buy off judicial officials to free (the jailed Americans).”

Heaven forbid that Haiti’s future justice system results from a patchwork of civil and common law lawyers from a variety of states throwing their money at small, parochial band-aid solutions. Law enforcement is the most pressing need and then, re-establishing Haiti’s justice system.

Haiti, circa February 2010, does not need an army of Gucchi suit lawyers, consuming food, water and other valuable resources.

In any event, what good can come of disorganized, uncoordinated teams of Canadian or American lawyers wandering the streets of Haiti setting up tents and waving a judicial gavel?

Unless the Haitians or the United Nations ask for help in rebuilding Haiti’s justice system, stay home and send money.


Posted in Access to Justice and Legal Information, Current Events, International Law, Legal Profession and Lawyers