Coast lawyer lauded for pro bono work

For as long as she's been a lawyer, Alison Sawyer has been an advocate for justice for all people regardless of their economic standing or understanding of legal matters. Today (March 30) she is being recognized for her outstanding work in our community.

The award, named for the late Dugald Christie, a lawyer advocate for extending free legal service to low income people, is presented annually to the B.C. lawyer who best personifies Christie's devotion to pro bono (free) work. The award was created in 2008, and Sawyer is the first woman to be so honoured.

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Access Pro Bono (APB) is the organization spearheading the award. In the email telling Sawyer of her selection to receive the award, APB had this to say: "You have been awarded the APB Dugald Christie Award in recognition of your outstanding service to the public for volunteering at our summary advice clinics."

However, that commendation tells only part of the story of Sawyer's long service to her community.

Since coming to B.C. from Toronto, in addition to working in a private practice, Sawyer has volunteered diligently for social entities. The list of groups she's offered legal advice to reads like a who's who of Vancouver causes. She's been a founding member of two different housing societies, a board member of Inland Refugee Society, board member of the Tenants' Rights Action Coalition, member of the Canadian Council of Refugees and co-chair of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Section of the Provincial Branch of the Canadian Bar Association.

In addition to the education she required for her lawyer's degree, Sawyer has continued learning with courses in mediation, non-profit management, teaching ESL and fundraising.

And if all that wasn't enough, she's also found time to write several Self-Counsel Press books, including Do It Yourself Divorce Kit. In fact, for 10 months, she was the staff writer lawyer for Self-Counsel.

Although Sawyer never met Christie, who was killed in 2006 while bicycling across Canada to raise awareness of the shortcomings of legal assistance, she did once end up with a job because of him.

Back in the late '80s, Christie started doing free legal clinics. He phoned up Legal Services Society and wanted to join forces. Because of his political slant, Legal Services wasn't keen on the idea. So the organization made a new position, pro bono co-ordinator for the whole province, and offered Sawyer the job. In that capacity, Sawyer was tasked with finding senior council to take cases such as one where a young man had fallen down stairs and was severely injured.

Always an advocate for legal access for all, Sawyer has been offering pro bono services through the Community Resource Centre for the past eight years. She has two clinics a month and sees an average of four people at each clinic.

"I'm the only lawyer on the Coast doing this right now. A lot of lawyers don't do clinics because they give free consultations," Sawyer said.

A major drawback with the free consultations, according to Sawyer, is that people don't always feel comfortable accessing this service.

"They may feel intimidated in a lawyer's office. Community Resources Centre is a setting where they're at ease," she explained.

"Volunteers who assist Alison at the pro bono legal clinics have watched numerous times as nervous and worried clients meet with her and come out with a smile on their faces as they have a plan to move forward. This speaks volumes on Alison's great abilities and her commitment to her community," Marj McDougall of the Community Resource Centre said in an email.

The people Sawyer sees have a lot of problems. They may not have the education necessary to understand the legal process. Tenancy issues, benefits issues with WorkSafe, the province and Canada, wrongful dismissals from jobs that don't pay much money are concerns she often deals with.

Probably the largest share of her case load revolves around family law.

"There is an endless need for people to have advice about family law. Relationships are messy, people [dealing with breakups] aren't in great shape, they're emotional."

Problems with poor people accessing legal services regarding government issues date back to the early 1990s when many services provided to help people deal with government were withdrawn. For instance, the Employment Standards Branch that deals with any employment issues has just a handful for the entire province.

Much of the information is now online, a further hindrance to folks who aren't computer literate or who don't have access to the technology. And once in the program, the information is sometimes beyond their ken.

Sometimes too, the self-help online is too simplistic. Complexities in each case preclude the individual getting an answer for his or her problem.

"There's a reason there are lawyers. Something that is very difficult for a client is much easier for me because of the amount of experience I've had," she explained.

So what's the reward for this hard-working legal advisor?

It all boils down to the satisfaction of helping people. She enjoys helping people navigate in her profession.

"I do feel useful, that's why I keep doing it. I like helping people solve problems. It's rewarding," she shared.

In addition to meeting with people pro bono, Sawyer has conducted workshops on various legal issues. The approachable lawyer also has a private practice based in Gibsons.

"My private practice is not specialized except that I believe in providing low-cost service on provincial court matters, which include family, criminal and small claims cases. I also do divorces, wrongful dismissal, wills, estates, some conveyancing and help with incapacity and disability issues," she related.

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