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'It's too complicated': Advocate for disabled in N.W.T. can't afford fight for legal aid

Elizabeth Portman says she’s reached the end of the road in her battle for legal aid for human rights complaints.

Elizabeth Portman will not appeal judge's ruling that human rights complaints do not qualify for legal aid

Elizabeth Portman says she’s reached the end of the road in her battle for legal aid for human rights complaints. (Guy Quenneville/CBC )

A champion of disabled rights in Yellowknife says she can't afford to continue a court fight with the territorial government.

"I can't do it myself, it's too complicated," said Elizabeth Portman of her decision to not appeal a court decision from four months ago.

"There's no information available for people who don't have lawyers — there's no forms, there's no 'how tos', there's nothing that's in plain English. Without that I would need the services of a lawyer and they cost two, three, [or] $400 an hour and I don't have that."

The case has to do with the Legal Aid Commission's policy of not providing lawyers for human rights cases, but it's just the latest turn in a fight that began almost six years ago.

In 2011 Portman filed a human rights complaint against the territorial government for failing to accommodate her disability. Portman has multiple sclerosis, limiting her mobility and strength. 

She applied to the Legal Aid Commission for help and was informed about the policy of not providing help for human rights cases. The commission, which is jointly funded by the territorial and federal governments, said it doesn't have the money and its lawyers don't have the expertise.

Portman filed a human rights complaint about that. A human rights adjudicator agreed that the policy was discriminatory. Adjudicator William McFetridge ordered the territorial government to eliminate the blanket policy of refusing human rights cases.

He also ordered the government, when assessing applications for legal aid, to consider how people's disabilities may affect their ability to access their rights under the Human Rights Act, and to pay Portman $10,000 for the stress and indignity she suffered as a result of the policy.

The territorial government fought that decision in court and won. The judge said the commission was set up to be independent of government and that its blanket policy was not discriminatory because it applied to everyone.

Though it was set up to be independent of government, the Legal Aid Commission's staff, including lawyers, are government employees. The government decides how much money it gets each year. The minister of justice appoints members to the commission.

Human Rights Commission appealing

An expert on human rights, Laverne Jacobs, says the policy, and the court decision upholding it, has a big impact on people with disabilities.

"If it's possible for legal aid boards to simply determine, in a blanket way, that they're not going to provide funding for human rights cases, that will have a significant impact on members of the disability community," said Jacobs, a professor with the University of Windsor's faculty of law.

"Because the greatest number of cases that go before human rights commissions are cases that deal with disability." 

Though Portman can't appeal the court decision, it is being appealed by the Human Rights Commission. Similar to Jacobs and McFetridge, the commission says it must take into account disabilities when considering applications for legal aid for human rights complaints.

The appeal is expected to be heard in April.

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