Legal Help for Haiti Shifts to the Long Term



Luis Millan for The Lawyers Weekly

June 4, 2010

Months after the massive earthquake that killed nearly 250,000 people, left 1 million others homeless and leveled the capital, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the Canadian legal community is slowly beginning to shift its focus from providing emergency response to helping Haiti lay the groundwork towards the reconstruction of a justice system that will "avoid the excesses of the past."

An agreement was signed with the Barreau de Port-au-Prince to help put in place legal aid for victims. The Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs Canada organized a roundtable with a host of organizations that reached agreement to collaborate together to assist with judicial reform in Haiti. And the Barreau de Montréal stepped up efforts to develop a long-term project aimed at providing Haitian lawyers with professional development.

"It's a colossal challenge - it was before, and it is more so today," observed Pascal Paradis, the head of Lawyers Without Borders (LWB) Canada, who just came back from a three-week mission in Haiti, the second time in less than three months that he - along with colleagues - visited the devastated nation.

The legal infrastructure is, quite simply, in tatters. While it is still unknown how many Haitian judges, lawyers and other legal professionals are missing or among the countless dead, scores of administrative support staff and security personnel passed away after the Palais de Justice crumbled like "a house of cards." Courthouses, law offices and law schools have also been damaged. Legal documents have been destroyed, or are lying under a heap of rubble.

"While Port-au-Prince is very slowly getting back on its feet and becoming more functional, the legal system faces many challenges," noted Paradis. "The courts are slowly beginning their activities but effective access to justice for the more vulnerable and earthquake victims is wanting and very difficult."

Even before the earthquake struck the international community was helping Haiti reform its judicial system. As a source of international condemnation the criminal justice system was renowned for appalling conditions and delays, with many prisoners and detainees suffering from a lack of basic hygiene, malnutrition and poor quality health care, according to a 2009 U.S. State Department report. At the end of 2008, 88 per cent of the country's 316 incarcerated juveniles had been held three years without charges or trial, added to the report. Indeed, LWB Canada was operating in Haiti for the last four years teaching, among other things, human rights at the Université d'État d'Haïti.

But there is a glimmer of hope, with many legal experts believing that the devastation has given the impoverished country a chance to reform its judiciary. Following an agreement that the Canadian non-profit organization signed with the Port-au-Prince law society, LWB Canada is now in the midst of helping to implement a "transitional system of emergency justice shelters," operating out of tents, that can be quickly deployed in the country's desolate communities and dismal shelters littered across Haiti's capital while giving the nation's formal justice a chance to be rebuilt. The frontline justice system is anchored by trained local jurists who give legal information and advice, and local judges who issue emergency safeguard orders and mediate disputes between parties.

The agreement also calls for the Canadian organization to help recruit legal aid lawyers, give a lending hand to develop educational materials and information to the public as well as offer professional development courses on ethics, international law, criminal law and alternative dispute resolution processes and techniques such as mediation and arbitration.

"We are sending Canadian experts to assist and help them respond to emergency situations but we also hope that they will apply the new ways of doing things to avoid falling back into the excesses or problems of the past," said Paradis. "But it's important with such efforts to be attentive to their needs."

Shortly after Paradis and his team got back from Port-au-Prince early this month, a roundtable with a slew of organizations met in Ottawa to discuss ways that they could collaborate to help reform the Haitian legal system. Held in Ottawa, the conference was organized by the Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs Canada (OCFJAC), an organization established in 1978 to safeguard the independence of the judiciary. Besides LWB Canada, the federal and provincial justice departments were present as was the Association of Court Administrators, Canadian Bar Association (CBA), Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Barreau de Montréal, Federal Court of Canada Justice Luc Martineau, and Court of Quebec Associate Chief Justice Claude Boulanger.

Described as a "very preliminary meeting" by Deputy Commissioner of Federal Judicial Affairs Marc Giroux, the participants reached an agreement to collaborate and avoid overlapping efforts to help with Haiti's judicial reform.

It wouldn't be the first time that the OCFJAC has undertaken such a venture. While all projects are financed by CIDA, the commissioner's office has a four-year judicial cooperation project with the Ukraine, ending this year, and a similar effort with China.

"Our office has a somewhat limited mandate but we do some international work," said Giroux. "The commissioner brought a fair number of organizations to discuss to discuss Haiti and whether something can be done with regards to their judicial reform or reconstruction of their justice system."

Pierre Fournier, a civil and commercial litigation lawyer, who has taken some of Quebec's top cases and attended the meeting on behalf of the Barreau, said that an agreement was reached "to work towards the reconstruction" of the Haitian judicial system but with the understanding that the "efforts will avoid duplication and antagonism."

The Barreau is also doing its share to help out. It has established a 13-person committee, headed by Fournier but composed mostly of Montreal lawyers of Haitian origin, to determine how it can provide support to the Haitian legal community. While admittedly in its embryonic stages, the Barreau is considering offering professional development courses to Haitian lawyers over a ten-year period, either through exchanges or more practically through the Internet, with the collaboration of Port-au-Prince's law society. Its biggest obstacle is not finding local legal talent to help out (having identified well over 100 Montreal lawyers who can speak Creole, know the Haitian legal system and may be of Haitian origin) but rather financing.

"There is probably nothing we could usefully do in the first year after the earthquake because all of the relief should go towards basic necessities," said Fournier, the former batonnier of the Barreau de Montréal. "We see our involvement for a period of around ten years, and even that is not long enough. You only start to see a difference after a few years when the people you've trained have been introduced to best practices."

In the meantime the CBA is still offering legal consultations and aid in preparing immigration applications - without charge - for Canadians and permanent residents in Canada who wish to sponsor family members affected by the earthquake. It has so far, at least in Montreal, provided with at least 320 hours of consultations, with each consultation ranging between 30-to-60 minutes.

Quotes of Pascal Paradis translated from French by the author.
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