New Brunswick

Fredericton man accused of practising law without licence faces jail time

A Fredericton-area man is facing possible jail time as a result of his latest clash with the New Brunswick Law Society over what the society says is his practising of law without a licence.

Vaughn Barnett says court order prohibiting from practising is ambiguous

Vaughn Barnett leaves the Fredericton courthouse Monday afternoon. The Fredericton man is facing jail time for allegedly violating a court order prohibiting from practising law without a licence. (CBC)

A Fredericton-area man is facing possible jail time as a result of his latest clash with the New Brunswick Law Society over what the society calls practising of law without a licence.

Vaughn Barnett represented himself in the day-long hearing Monday in which he argued that he hadn't meant to violate a 2000 court order.

The society asked Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Tracey DeWare to find Barnett in contempt of court for violating an injunction order by Justice Thomas Riordon in 2000. The society is asking for him to be sent to jail for 90 to 180 days.

Barnett has a law degree but is not a member of the law society and is not licensed to practice.

Lawyers licensed by the society are subject to a code of ethics and to disciplinary proceedings, and must carry liability insurance — requirements that protect the public, lawyer Tim Bell argued.

Bell said Barnett has appeared in court six times on the same issue and once spent 10 days in jail. 

Tim Bell, the lawyer representing the New Brunswick Law Society, says Barnett has not let up practising without a licence since the court order issued in 2000. (CBC)

"Despite all of this Mr. Barnett will not let up," he said.

"He's been practising law, plain and simple … pushing the envelope, testing his luck, seeing how far he can go."

Bell quoted emails and letters Barnett wrote on behalf of one woman he was helping, Wendy Wetteland, asking about "the legal context," "the legal basis" and "the legal justification" of her suspension from her job.

"He doesn't say he's not a lawyer," Bell argued, "Instead he jumps right into legal arguments."

He also corresponded with police officials to ask for "the legal grounds" for Wetteland's potential arrest for questioning in the case and attempted to negotiate conditions for her co-operation, Bell said.

'Trying to walk a fine line'

Barnett acknowledged in court he was "trying to walk a fine line" by helping people in need without straying into a violation of the 2000 court order. 

"I am advocating in the activist sense, not the legal advocate sense," he said.

He said if he "crossed the line" it was because of his "honest interpretation" of a court order he described as ambiguous.

"If that is what happened, I apologize," he said.

Vaughn Barnett argued the 2000 court order is ambiguous, saying he was acting under his 'honest interpretation' of the order. (CBC)

He described several possible definitions of "an administrative body," which the order prevents him from appearing before.

But DeWare was skeptical of Barnett's argument that there were many possible interpretations of the phrase.

"You are a very intelligent person," she told Barnett. "There's no doubt about that. … It seems incredible to me that you couldn't fully understand what that meant." 

In its court filing, the society says "a strong, clear and unequivocal message needs to be sent" to Barnett. 

Barnett says he is a community activist who helps low-income people by providing them with alternate dispute resolution services, but not legal advice. 

"I do not charge for my help, advertise my work, nor actively solicit people to assist," he said in his court filing, adding he helps a small group of friends, members of their families, and "a few people who have somehow learned about me."

Order upheld by appeals court

Under the Law Society Act, the profession governs its own conduct, and no one can give legal advice or represent clients in a legal capacity without a licence.

In 2000 the society obtained an injunction ordering Barnett to stop. That was upheld by the New Brunswick Court of Appeal.

In 2007 a Court of Queen's Bench judge added to the initial order by requiring Barnett add to any written reference he made to his law degree the disclaimer "not licensed to practice law" in type twice as large.

No matter how much I scale back, I keep getting in trouble.​​​​​- Vaughn Barnett

The new application springs from two new examples of Barnett doing legal work, the society says.

In one case, he acted as what he called a "legal researcher and advocate" for Wetteland, who was suspended from her job as president and chief of the New Brunswick Aboriginal Peoples' Council. 

In the second case, the society said, he tried to negotiate with the New Brunswick Labour and Employment Board on behalf of someone, and did not use the required "not licensed to practice law" disclaimer.

Barnett said the 2007 order requiring that phrase referred only to business cards or marketing material, and did not apply to his letters and emails.

Those letters and emails said explicitly he was working "in support of" the complainant, and not "representing" her.

"To me that's political activism," he said.

Barnett said after the 2000 and 2007 cases he stopped doing work that was clearly legal, and argued that since he hadn't been in trouble with the law society from 2007 to last year, "I must have been making some kind of effort to do things differently."

He added: "No matter how much I scale back, I keep getting in trouble."

Barnett is also arguing the society's new application violates his Charter rights to free expression and fundamental justice. But the society says those constitutional claims were rejected in the appeal of the 2000 case, and bringing them up again is repetitive and an abuse of process. 

DeWare will rule in the case Feb. 27. She told Barnett she hasn't made up her mind but in case she rules for the law society, he should be ready to go to jail that day.

He responded that he'd been ready to go Monday.