Wing Lee: couldn't get a lawyer
Lee requested one lawyer in particular but was turned down. Legal Aid of the NWT tried to arrange for someone else, but to no avail

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

NNSL (May 15/98) - The lawyers in Yellowknife certainly weren't flocking to defend accused sex offender Wing Lee after he fired his first attorney earlier this year.

Lee requested one lawyer in particular but was turned down. Legal Aid of the NWT tried to arrange for someone else, but to no avail.

"It's been very difficult. No lawyer has been willing to step forward to defend you directly," Justice John Vertes told Lee at a Supreme Court hearing last week.

Fortunately for Lee, Yellowknife lawyer Andy Mahar offered to act as a "friend of the court." As such, Mahar will handle legal issues, points of evidence and cross-examination of witnesses. Also noteworthy is the fact that, as a friend of the court, Lee cannot fire him.

But what if Mahar hadn't come forward? Would Lee, whose grasp of English and the Canadian legal system is less than perfect, have been forced to defend himself.

According to Bruce McKay, executive director of Legal Services Board of the NWT, in any such case the court would assume the responsibility to appoint a lawyer or a friend of the court.

"The court has the power to make sure that (the accused) gets a fair trial," McKay said.

If the court can't find one within the NWT, it can elect to appoint a lawyer from elsewhere in the country. In that event, the federal minister of justice is responsible to cover the travel and accommodations expenses.

There are several legal aid staff lawyers spread throughout the NWT, working in legal services clinics. In addition, 45 private-practice lawyers who have agreed to be available to represent clients who can't afford to hire one; each is assigned on a rotational basis, case by case.

No lawyer is forced to accept a client, however. Some cases could present a huge investment of time -- an investment few lawyers would be willing to make at the legal aid rate of just $65 an hour.

It doesn't have to be that way, however. Not every jurisdiction in Canada has the same legal aid mechanism.

In Alberta the Legal Aid Society employs private bar lawyers to provide services, according to executive director Nancy Brown Medwid. She said all adult clients have the right to select their own counsel.

"For the most part, we would have to fly someone in from another area as well," she said. "The legal aid plan doesn't have any authority to

force a lawyer to take a case, assuming it's a private bar lawyer."

With an abundance of lawyers to chose from in Alberta, Brown Medwid said she can't remember having to fly a lawyer in from out of province but, on occasion, one has been summoned from a distant region of the province.

In Saskatchewan, the Legal Aid Society operates with a staff of 60 lawyers who are assigned cases on a rotational basis -- private bar attorneys handled less than two per cent of the cases, according to Jane Lancaster, chair of the Saskatchewan Legal Aid Commission. With rare exception, staff lawyers cannot refuse to offer counsel to a client.

"It's a staff plan. You're paid a salary. The client comes in. If you're eligible, you do the work," she said, succinctly.

If a dispute arises, there can be trade-off amongst lawyers within the office.

Clients are prohibited by the Legal Aid act from retaining lawyers who reside outside the province. The reason for that is to limit cost, Lancaster noted.

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