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Poverty-law lawyer Vince Calderhead’s mission to change the justice system

Veteran lawyer Vince Calderhead’s new position at Pink Larkin, which will be pro bono, allows him to dedicate himself to pursuing systemic changes rather than just individual cases.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Bespectacled, besuited and seated at a boardroom table deep inside the swish quarters of the boutique law firm Pink Larkin, Vince Calderhead hardly looks the part of a cheerleader. His white-collar image on this day is more akin to that of a precedent-seeking lawyer. But it is his nature – and now his job – to embody both.

Mr. Calderhead, 63, is a social justice litigator who has spent more than 30 years working on behalf of the poor as a legal-aid staffer in Nova Scotia. He is nationally renowned for his unique approach to poverty law – an approach that for years has centred on pressing courts to strike down legislation that violates the protections he sees impoverished people as entitled to under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Mr. Calderhead set both a national and personal precedent recently when he retired from Legal Aid and accepted an invitation to join Pink Larkin in Halifax, where he was offered an opportunity to launch a unique private practice thought to be the first of its kind in Canada. The firm will pay Mr. Calderhead a full salary to work exclusively on behalf of disadvantaged and marginalized people, offering his legal services to them free of charge.

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Ron Pink, one of the firm's managing partners, said the firm was familiar with Mr. Calderhead's reputation as "one of the best-known poverty-law lawyers in the country." When he and his partners learned Mr. Calderhead was available, they approached him to continue his work inside their firm. "It was just the right thing to do," Mr. Pink said, adding that he hopes other law firms see the move as a challenge "not just here, but across the country, to fill that access to justice gap."

While many lawyers do pro bono work as part of their regular case load, Mr. Calderhead's special mandate means he is utterly free from tabulating billable hours. There will be no pressure to take paid cases to balance out his ledger. Instead, Mr. Calderhead's crosshairs will be fixed on what is known as systemic or test cases – those that will challenge laws, practices and policies that specifically infringe the rights of the poor and, if changed, will benefit a widespread number of marginalized people.

Recently retired Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell called Mr. Calderhead's appointment "bold, enlightened and very creative."

"I'm not aware of any firm that has hired a lawyer exclusively for that purpose or hired a person to tackle the more systemic side of social and economic rights," he said.

Now in private practice at the firm Borden Ladner Gervais, Justice Cromwell is well versed in access-to-justice issues that plague the courts in Canada; at the request of SCOC Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, the former judge continues to chair the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice's action committee on access to justice on civil and family matters. Justice Crowell is also very familiar with Mr. Calderhead's approach to poverty law:He taught the lawyer during his law-school days at what is now the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"From the first day I met him it was obvious that he was very committed to social and economic justice," Justice Cromwell said. "He has a very creative legal mind, in the sense that he really tries to look beyond the existing bounds that the law appears to set out."

Mr. Calderhead, who also went on to teach at Dalhousie, early on established a reputation for unconventional approaches to cases that others may deem insignificant. He was still in law school and working at Dalhousie's Legal Aid Clinic when he challenged a provision of Nova Scotia's Education Act that allowed students to be indefinitely committed to provincially run schools for truancy. Arguing that the provision amounted to cruel and unusual punishment under the Charter, Mr. Calderhead won over a family court judge. Nova Scotia never appealed the decision and the provision was struck down.

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Rollie Thompson, a professor at Dalhousie who was supervising the Legal Aid Clinic then, remembers being stunned at Mr. Calderhead's achievement. "The ability to see potential legal issues in cases … that might have transformative effects for other poor people is a remarkable talent to have as a student," Prof. Thompson said. "And it is one of Vince's real talents."

That talent became a career trademark for Mr. Calderhead. In spite of a Legal Aid case load that he likened to the chocolate factory conveyor belt in an infamous episode of the television show I Love Lucy, he used it towards his unwavering commitment to proving that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms must afford poor people the same protection of rights that it affords others.

A critical case that won Mr. Calderhead national acclaim among anti-poverty advocates was one that the constitutional law professor Martha Jackman, at the University of Ottawa, still uses in her course material. Referred to as Sparks, the case was built around the poor fortune of Irma Sparks, a public housing tenant in Dartmouth, N.S., who was being evicted from her home on 30 days' notice.

Digging into the case, Mr. Calderhead was struck by a public-policy discrepancy that protected private-sector tenants from being evicted on such short notice without just cause. Public-housing tenants were not afforded equal security under provincial housing legislation. Mr. Calderhead argued in court that the law was discriminatory to women, poor and racialized people, on the basis that they are the primary tenants of public housing. His hard-fought and eventual victory at the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal resulted in amendments to Nova Scotia housing legislation; equal protections around security of tenure were extended to 10,000 public-housing tenants across the province.

"It was an important precedent for recognizing that the Charter had a direct bearing on legislation that had an adverse, discriminatory effect on poor people," said Prof. Jackman, adding that people who qualify for public housing are, by definition, low income earners.

More than Mr. Calderhead's victories, though (which he admits have been interspersed with a number of losses) his international renown grew out of his bottomless dedication to social justice. Born into an Anglo family of eight outside of Montreal, Mr. Calderhead went on to study in tumultuous northern Ireland. He said life in both places made him aware of the divisions caused by power and class and gave him the "formative experiences" that ultimately lead him away from his initial aspirations of working in labour law and towards his current specialty. Over the course of his career he has made several appearances at the Supreme Court of Canada on behalf of the Charter Committee on Poverty Issues (CCPI). He has also represented anti-poverty groups at United Nations treaty monitoring bodies in New York and Geneva. In 2008, he was the recipient of the John Tait Award of Excellence, awarded by the Canadian Bar Association.

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"The amazing thing about Vince is that this man is still going with so much energy and positive outlook," said Prof. Jackman, who nominated him for the Tait award. "The problem with this area of law, and the reason not many people practise it, is that you can get pretty dejected and even burnt out. It's really hard slogging."

Mr. Calderhead does not deny this. He calls his time at legal aid "delightful but also grinding." Wednesdays, he said, were particularly unpredictable because it was his day to do intake. He might see eight or nine new cases in addition to his regular files. "Coming home at the end of the day, I felt like I'd gone several rounds with Muhammed Ali – you don't know what's coming in or how difficult it will be," he said.

It became tough to find the time and resources to work up cases that, beyond solving the individual problem at hand, presented systemic issues, he said. "The pace of the assembly line doesn't really allow you to stop and say 'Hey, let's challenge this, it's so unfair, let's deal with it once and for all.' You end up with the assembly line spilling over," he said.

This problem is not unique to Nova Scotia. Across the country, legal aid services vary in their availability by province and many are hobbling along in skeleton states. Most, Prof. Thompson said, barely have the resources to slog through individual cases let alone devote the additional time and resources it takes to tackle systemic issues, despite their re-occurence. Transforming an individual's problem into a test case, Prof. Thompson said, takes a sharp legal mind, dogged resolve and thick skin. The court system does not take kindly to challenges that force its judges wade deeply into the realm of social policy, he said.

Thus, without a clear champion, systemic issues often fester in the legal system, widening gaps for the poor and disadvantaged, who are nonetheless deserving of access to justice.

In his new role at Pink Larkin, Mr. Calderhead will have what he sees as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to focus on systemic litigation in a way he simply could not sustain before. The prospect has brought the veteran lawyer renewed vigour.

He'll need that to deal with the daunting case at the top of his pile, a years-long battle known locally as Emerald Hall. Filed on behalf of three complainants with mental disabilities who need supportive community housing, the case is a human-rights challenge scheduled to begin next February. It will test what Mr. Calderhead calls the "anachronistic" practise in Nova Scotia of institutionalizing people with mental disabilities as an alternative to housing them in community-based settings typical in other parts of the country. One of his complainants, a resident of the Nova Scotia Hospital, has been institutionalized for 17 years while waiting for a community placement. Taxpayers spend nearly half a million dollars for her to live there each year. The number would be more than halved if she were in assisted housing.

Mr. Calderhead began his work on the case while at N.S. Legal Aid. But it – and a few others he has thus far carried over – are better suited to Pink Larkin, which will lend Mr. Calderhead the staff and resources he truly requires to do it justice.

Already, Mr. Calderhead has had requests for his help from across the country. Although he is only licensed to practise in Nova Scotia, he has consulted on cases further afield in the past. Mr. Pink, the partner, said the firm will develop selection criteria to help identify which cases Mr. Calderhead ought to take on. "It will have to be systemic issues that affect the marginalized in our community," he said.

Dalhousie's Prof. Thompson is doubtful other large firms will pick up the challenge. "Most firms that have the money to afford to do this would not have the inclination," he said. "The kind of work that Vince does actually challenges the structure of our society and our justice system. Most law firms … are quite comfortable with the present system."

Still, he is keen to observe what he calls the "unique experiment" at Pink Larkin. "Vince is a cockeyed optimist. He always actually thinks that, somehow, he's going to be able to make things better for people. It's what keeps him going," Prof. Thompson said. "I hope it works."

Jessica Leeder is The Globe and Mail's Atlantic correspondent.

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Global food reporter

Jessica Leeder is the Globe’s Atlantic Reporter, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In previous roles, Jessica has reported for the Globe from Afghanistan and post-quake Haiti, assignments for which she won an Emmy and a National Newspaper Award, respectively. She has also written about the politics of global food, entrepreneurialism and small business, and automotive news. More

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