FREDERICTON — A Fredericton man who describes himself as a community activist committed to helping low-income people was sentenced to 100 days in jail for practising law without a licence Thursday.
Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Tracey DeWare found Vaughn Barnett in contempt of a 2000 court injunction that barred him from offering legal services. Including the injunction, it was the third time the New Brunswick Law Society has brought Barnett before the courts.
In 2007, he was found guilty of violating the injunction and spent 10 days in jail. He was ordered at the time to use the words "not licensed to practise law" in capital letters and bold type on any correspondence or marketing.
The most recent incidents involve assistance Barnett, who has a law degree but is not a member of the provincial law society, provided to Wendy Wetteland and Gina Persaud.
Wetteland was involved in a dispute with the New Brunswick Aboriginal People's Council, while Persaud had a complaint with the New Brunswick Labour and Employment Board.
The law society alleged that interventions made by Barnett violated the injunction order, and his correspondence did not include the proviso that he is not licensed to practise law.
Barnett maintained he did not breach the terms of the order but said if he did, it was unintentional and he apologizes.
DeWare told Barnett his apologies are "falling on deaf judicial ears" and accused him of putting the public at risk.
She noted that unlike law society members, Barnett is not required to have insurance, he cannot be disciplined by his peers and he is not compelled to undergo continuing education.
"In the event a member of the public is harmed as a result of the respondent's intervention, they have absolutely no recourse, and this, potentially, could be most significant," she said.
"While the respondent as an individual certainly poses no harm in a criminal sense to his fellow citizens, his ability to do harm through the unlicensed practice of law is real and, regretfully, unrelenting."
As Barnett was led out of the court by sheriff's deputies, supporters shouted, "Hold your head high," and, "You've done nothing wrong."
Outside the courthouse, Dan Weston, co-ordinator with the Fredericton Anti-Poverty Organization, called the justice system a club for the wealthy.
"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 get the justice you deserve instead of the justice you can buy," Weston said.
Melynda Jarratt, a friend of Barnett, said the court ruling will leave many poor people without assistance.
"Anyone who might have helped you before is not going to help you now. They are going to be afraid to help," she said. "A real iron curtain is going to descend upon access to justice for low-income people in this province. It's a very frightening thought."
Marc Richard, executive director of the New Brunswick Law Society, acknowledged there are concerns with access to justice in the province. He said the minister of justice, the court system and the law society are all looking at ways to remove barriers.
But Richard also echoed DeWare's concerns that the public has no protection or recourse if an unlicensed person practises law.
"At the end of the day, our role as the law society is to protect the public," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2020.
Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press