A Hay River man trying to sue the N.W.T. government says he can't find a lawyer in the territory to take his case, and his situation may be symptomatic of a larger problem in Northerners' access to justice.

William Harris was injured in a vehicle accident on the highway leading into Hay River in 2012 and suffered neurological and memory problems.

Harris says the accident was caused by a rut in the highway and wants the Northwest Territories Department of Transportation to pay him almost half a million dollars in damages. The highway, he says, wasn't properly maintained.

On Jan. 15, Harris appeared before a Supreme Court Justice in Yellowknife. He had no lawyer and the judge recommended he get counsel.

Harris told the court that he had tried to get a lawyer but no one would take his case because it was against the territorial government.

'There are always issues of conflict'

Northwest Territories' Minister of Justice Louis Sebert, a lawyer himself, says finding a lawyer in the N.W.T. to take a case comes down to what other cases their law firms are working on.

Louis Sebert.jpg

'If anyone in that firm is representing the government then there is a conflict,' says Louis Sebert, Northwest Territories' Minister of Justice. (Handout)

"There are always issues of conflict and if one member of a firm is conflicted then that conflicts the whole firm. Civil litigation tends to be quite specialized so there aren't that many lawyers doing it in the first place and many of those are in the larger firms.

"If anyone in that firm is representing the government then there is a conflict," he said.

When asked if that limits N.W.T. residents' access to justice, Sebert said, "it may to some degree because we only have a limited number of lawyers in the territory."

Of the about 170 lawyers who, according to the NWT Law Society website, live and work in the territory, around 70 are currently employed full-time by the territorial government.

CBC contacted the NWT Chapter of the Canadian Bar Association for comment on the issue. Tricia Ralph, president of the chapter, said she couldn't comment because she is currently employed by the territorial government and would be in conflict.

Ralph said that the NWT Law Society had created a committee looking at the issue of access to justice in the territory. However, when the CBC tried to reach lawyer Margo Nightingale, the committee's chair, her voicemail said she was out of the territory indefinitely.

'The hand that feeds them'

There are 12 lawyers in the territory that specialize in civil or tort law, according to the Law Society of the NWT's website. CBC tried contacting all of them. Only two returned our calls. We agreed not to disclose their identities.

One lawyer the CBC spoke to said some lawyers refuse to take cases against the territorial government because "they don't want to upset their own people."

The government offers hundreds of thousands of dollars of work to firms, often hiring them to do litigation and other part time work, the lawyer said. He also said he had heard of lawyers creating fake conflicts in order to turn down cases against the GNWT.

In other words, the lawyer said, "They don't want to bite the hand that feeds them."

What ends up happening, he says, is people like Harris get lost in the system or end up dropping their case altogether.

A second lawyer made similar points. But he said that, for himself, having worked with the territorial government in the past is not actually a conflict at all.

"It really opened the door for people to come to me because I knew how government works," he said.

No representation, no justice

Canadian Civil Liberties Association

'If clients don't have access to proper representation, then really they don't have access to justice,' says the executive director for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Sukanya Pillay. (Canadian Civil Liberties Association)

There is another option for people looking for a lawyer — residents can recruit one from out of the territory. But hiring counsel from Vancouver or Edmonton comes with extra costs. Lawyers may need to travel to N.W.T. for hearings, which can add thousands of dollars in travel and accommodation costs.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association says it finds the issue concerning and is going to look into it further.

"If clients don't have access to proper representation, then really they don't have access to justice," said the association's executive director, Sukanya Pillay.

Harris did not respond to a request for comment. The judge has given him six weeks to try and find a lawyer to represent him.