Commentary | The case of Claude Robinson

The Quebec judiciary is inaccessible to people who aren't well-connected

It goes without saying that the Claude Robinson legal affair lifts the veil on a fundamental accessibility problem of Quebec’s justice system. The television cartoonist Claude Robinson just won a 14-year battle to recover his right to the legitimate property of his creation, Robinson Curiosité. Long story short: the Cookie Jar Group – formerly known as Cinar – stole the piece from Robinson at the end of the 80s, and turned it into a TV series, Robinson Sucroë. The latter have now asked to bring the judgment to the Court of Appeal.

However, Robinson is not afraid and is determined to win this second battle. A spontaneous group of people from artistic and other communities has collected around $400,000 to pay for his defense. Even though all the facts proved the artist right. Even though it was proven that the Cookie Jar Group acted in bad faith. This raises a question: without the access Robinson has to mass media and the financial support it entailed, how could he have paid such astronomical legal fees?
Something underlies this affair, something much more salient to the common citizen: accessibility to the justice system in Quebec. In 1972, the government passed the Loi sur l’aide juridique, seen as a revolution since it promised poorer citizens access to the courts. Nearly 40 years later, though, all one can say is that the law has become nearly useless. Usually, a lawyer asks for $150 an hour for legal advice. A single person is eligible for legal aid when they earn less than $18,303. The question is: what if that same person earns just one dollar more that amount? Can he really access decent legal aid? The question is the answer. As a matter of fact, an average of 40,000 people are refused legal aid each year. Forty thousand people who are faced with the tough fact that they’ll have to forget about those rights. Forty thousand people for whom the laws designed to protect them are merely empty words.

Solutions exist, however, and have already been put forward by diverse political and judicial entities. Of course, admissibility criteria for legal aid could be improved. However, our society has many more things to think about. Means of remuneration for legal aid lawyers could be modified. Small claims courts could raise the litigious amount of money admissible to its instances. Fiscal incentives could be implemented for those who wish to defend their rights. Financing could be provided to organizations, like the Clinique juridique Juripop, that promote social justice. Alternative ways of solving legal conflicts could be put forward.

It is clear that the actual situation makes a great number of people lose confidence in their laws and the way they are applied. The future might hold Claude Robinson as a symbol of that problem. The principles behind the current legal aid system are indeed admirable. It is nonetheless unfortunate that they remain beyond the grasp of most of the people they were intended to help, due to the level of financial distress they require.

Marc-Antoine Cloutier and Julien D.-Pelletier are law students at UQAM and the president and vice-president, respectively of Clinique juridique Juripop. During fall 2009, they started the legal-aid clinic, which provides free legal services to those those who are ineligible to governmental legal aid, but unable to pay for a lawyer. Louise Boyd works with Juripop as a lawyer. The clinic is presently looking for law students to get involved, as more and more people are now asking for such services. Visit Juripop’s website (French only): or call them (French and English): 450-845-1637.