New Brunswick

Fredericton man gets 100 days in jail for practising law without licence

A Fredericton man who describes himself as a social activist is going to jail for what a senior judge says is practising law without a licence.

Vaughn Barnett found in contempt of court Thursday for not adhering to a court order

Vaughn Barnett is pictured outside the Fredericton courthouse in January. On Thursday, he was found in contempt of court for violating a court order and will spend 100 days in jail. (CBC)

A Fredericton man who describes himself as a social activist is going to jail for what a senior judge says is practising law without a licence.

Vaughn Barnett was found in contempt of court Thursday morning for showing "a flagrant lack of respect" for a previous court order that he stop providing legal advice to people and representing them in legal disputes.

Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Tracey DeWare sentenced him to 100 days in jail, dismissing Barnett's argument that if he breached the two-decade-old order, he did so by mistake.

"The respondent is an extremely intelligent man," she wrote in her decision. "He is fully aware of the scope and nature of the court order in place and, in my view, there is no ambiguity in the wording of the injunction order."

The New Brunswick Law Society applied for the contempt finding, arguing that by not being a member of the society, Barnett was not required to have insurance, was not subject to a complaint procedure and could not be disciplined — a risk to the people he helps.

DeWare accepted those arguments, saying the society's requirements exist to protect the public.

What we need instead of a private club like this one ... is a public justice system where the people have free access, so you can get the justice you deserve, not the justice you can buy.​​​- Dan Weston, anti-poverty activist

"The respondent is not a criminal, nor is he dangerous in the sense that society needs to have him behind bars in order to protect his fellow citizens from physical harm," she wrote.

"However, the respondent's insistence on engaging in the practice of law does endanger individuals whom he is ostensibly assisting. … His ability to do harm through the unlicensed practice of law is real, and, regretfully, unrelenting." 

Moments after DeWare sentenced Barnett, a court sheriff took him into custody. Several supporters in the courtroom called out to him with words of encouragement.

One of them passed the sheriff a packed bag that Barnett brought to court in anticipation of going to jail.

Barnett argued at a January hearing that he was a community activist who helps low-income people by providing them with alternative dispute resolution services, but not legal advice. He said if he had crossed the line, it was by mistake.

'A secular saint'

Outside the courthouse, the supporters told reporters that Barnett represented an option for people who can't afford to hire lawyers.

"What we need instead of a private club like this one — if you haven't got the money, you can't take part — is a public justice system where the people have free access, so you can get the justice you deserve, not the justice you can buy," said anti-poverty activist Dan Weston.

Robert MacKay noted that judicial officials, including former Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, have called for better access to justice. He called Barnett "a secular saint" and added, "I just think it's crappy what happened today."

Fredericton historian Melynda Jarratt said she has known Barnett for 30 years and "if he says that he did not mean to contravene the order, I believe him."

But law society executive director Marc Richard said the decision was justified. 

"It's not an easy situation," he said. "We have to do our job, which is the protection of the public." 

Richard said the society has a committee including Department of Justice and court officials to improve access to justice, but someone like Barnett "has to respect the court order, the system that's in place." 

Barnett's history

Barnett has a law degree but has never been licensed to practise law. In 2000 the society obtained an injunction ordering Barnett to stop practising, a decision later upheld by the New Brunswick Court of Appeal.

In 2007 a Court of Queen's Bench judge sent him to jail for 10 days for violating that order. He also amended the 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.

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

This year's case sprang from two new examples of Barnett doing what the society considered legal work. 

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

In that case, DeWare ruled, Barnett asked for disclosure of the evidence against her and to attend a hearing with her, referred to her as his "client" and asked the organization's lawyer for "the legal justification" for her suspension.

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

He also described himself as Persaud's "legal advisor" and tried to negotiate the terms of her arrest with a Fredericton police detective.

 

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