The Montreal lawyer who has become synonymous with the fight against police repression during last spring's student strike in Quebec is facing a whole new battle.
In early July, Denis Poitras declared personal bankruptcy. He was immediately disbarred, as per the rules of the Barreau du Québec, the province's professional organisation for lawyers.
He is now working to regain the right to practice the work that he loves. He isn't doing it alone though: on August 5, a fundraising and support campaign was launched to help him raise the money needed to get him out of bankruptcy and back to work.
"The idea of the campaign is not to place the onus of the debt on Denis' backers," said Arij Riahi, a recent graduate of the Bar who was planning on doing her articling with Poitras, but who is now working on the campaign. "After the bankruptcy was announced, many people expressed their support and were eager to help out. So, we did what we do best: we organized. The campaign was the result of that support and solidarity."
Poitras has for years been the go-to lawyer for Montreal activists, especially in cases like mass arrests, charges related to demonstrations, and alleged incidents of police abuse. He has defended people in cases ranging from 2001's Summit of the Americas protest in Quebec City, to last year's student strike and Spring 2013's rallies against a Montreal by-law that restricts the right to protest. In many of these situations, though, his clients had little to no money. It has been common for him to take on an entire group of people contesting a mass arrest -- sometimes up to 200 or more -- but only charging a portion of them.
Poitras' commitment to the idea that civil liberties need protecting, regardless of the money attached has led to some of his financial difficulties. But it's also why so many have come out in support already.
"As a law student and a member of the Legal Committee of the CLASSE/ASSÉ, I started collaborating closely with Denis during the student strike," said Émilie Joly, another of the organizers of the support campaign, to rabble.ca. "It was a great learning experience and I think that his work defending political activists pro bono or with reduced rates is a cornerstone to accessible justice, especially to defend freedom of speech."
Words of support from across Canada -- remnants of his clients from national protests like the Summit of the Americas -- have also flooded his Facebook page and email account.
As of the morning of August 9, the campaign has already raised over $18,000. He still needs to raise a lot more though, and is in negotiations with his creditors on how much he needs to pay back, and when. He owes money to Revenue Canada, Revenue Quebec and Quebec's student loans program.
Talking over coffee a few blocks from his home office, Poitras recognized that he bears some of the blame for this financial situation. Self-employed, he hasn't had an administrative assistant to help him organize his books -- something he says he'll change once he is out of bankruptcy.
Making $2,000 in a month, when it costs him $2,500 to live and work, meant he fell behind in paying sales tax, which (along with penalties and interest) make up the bulk of his debts. He's currently negotiating a settlement that would forgive the penalties and allow him to repay just the principal.
"When they tell me that I owe, for example, $140,000 [in sales tax] -- if you take off the penalties, the late fees, the interest, etc., the real amount is about one-third to 40 per cent of that," he explained.
The campaign is also raising the issue of access to justice. Poitras maintains that those in need of legal representation are having increasing trouble finding it. In 1995, the Quebec government adopted the pursuit of a balanced budget and zero deficit at the expense of many social services. Legal aid wasn't spared, and went through deep cuts. Since then, those who are ticketed and then fined -- which is the case of the majority of those caught in mass arrests -- cannot obtain free legal services. That means the hundreds of people who have been handed $500 to $600 tickets by Montreal police since Spring 2012 have no financial support to turn to if they wish to contest. There's a dire need over the coming years to change the legal system, said Poitras.
Short term, though, the lawyer has around 1,700 open files, some with court dates stretching all the way to 2015. He'll soon be informing his clients that they'll need to look for other legal counsel, but hopes that a quick resolution to his bankruptcy and his reinstatement to the Quebec Bar -- ideally within the next month -- will mean he'll be able to pick back up with many of them. If the situation persists, though, he worries he could lose all his clients. He is hopeful though: he says his creditors have just as much interest in getting him back to work, since that's the only way he'll be able to repay what he owes them.
At 59 years old, he recognizes that he probably won't be practicing law much longer -- probably only another ten years or so -- and that his bankruptcy puts even that in jeopardy. But he harbours no regrets, especially around the hundreds of cases and 15 hour work days he took on during the student strike. It isn't those cases that put him in debt, he says, but rather they're the ones that will help him get out of it. It's also what inspires him.
"I've always said that I have the best clients in the world. The young people in society are a lot more active [...] They're fighting for the living conditions now, fighting for the kind of society they want to see, fighting for the environment," he said at one point. "What's a salary? I'd say that just working with these people, it's a salary on its own."
"Although it's clear that when I show up at Revenue Quebec and tell them that I've got great clients, it doesn't work too well ... Same thing for the cashier at the [grocery store]," he adds with a wry smile.
You can donate to the campaign by visiting http://aidonsdenispoitras.org (an English site is in the works). For those in Montreal, there will be a fundraising concert and BBQ on Sept. 14. T-shirts are also on sale here. And look for updates on Facebook here and on Twitter at @aidonsdenis.
Tim McSorley is an editor with the Montreal Media Coop.
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