Each year, the Supreme Court of Canada receives approximately 600 applications from lawyers seeking leave to appeal the decisions of appellate courts. About 80 or so cases are chosen to be heard.
So for Dalhousie Legal Aid Service staff lawyer Shawna Hoyte, the chance to argue before Canada’s highest court last month was “the experience of a lifetime.”
“It was awesome,” she exclaims proudly, noting that as an African Nova Scotian woman the opportunity was particularly significant. “Very few lawyers ever get the opportunity to stand in front of the court and make their case – it’s quite the confidence builder!”
As enthusiastically as Ms. Hoyte speaks about the experience, she saves her strongest words for the importance of the case she was arguing. It involves a young person with a learning disability charged in Youth Court with a criminal offence. The issues for the Supreme Court of Canada involve the admissibility of statements given by a young person to someone of authority, (the police), and what precautions police need to take when dealing with and taking statements from young people .
“The case is truly about the rights of all youth in this country,” says Ms. Hoyte, both a lawyer and a practicing social worker with a master’s degree from Dalhousie. “The foundation of the Youth Criminal Justice Act provides for enhanced procedural protections for young people. The police need to make sure that young people understand what is being said to them and the consequences of their decision when they choose to waive their rights.”
At the young person’s trial, the Nova Scotia Youth Court judge declared that police should be required to ask young people to explain, in their own words, what rights they are agreeing to waive and ruled that the youth’s statement should not be admitted. The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal overturned that decision and ordered a new trial for the accused.
Ms. Hoyte, who has been working on behalf of her client since the very beginning of this case in 2004, felt that the Court of Appeal decision raised significant issues and applied for leave to the Supreme Court – the first time she had done so. The Supreme Court of Canada, on the grounds that the issues were of national importance, granted leave.
On February 25, Ms. Hoyte was in Ottawa making her client’s case before our country’s highest court. For almost an hour, she was asked and answered questions from all seven judges in attendance dealing with factual and legal aspects of the case. Their decision is expected in five or six months’ time.
For Dalhousie Legal Aid Service (DLAS), the case is representative of the organization’s mission to provide a legal aid law clinic – the only community-based clinic in Nova Scotia – that brings together client representation, outreach and education with lobbying and test case litigation directed at combating injustices affecting the disadvantaged.
Richard Evans, a Dalhousie Law faculty member who has been associated with legal aid clinic since 1975, was present in the Supreme Court to hear Ms. Hoyte argue the case. He says that DLAS has brought cases to the Supreme Court at least five times since the clinic’s creation in 1970. “For an office that practices poverty law on behalf of some of the most disadvantaged in our society, that’s pretty extraordinary,” he says.
Other attendees sitting in the gallery included two students who worked on the case as students: Carolyn Shelly and Misty Morrison, each of whom spent an academic term at DLAS. Ms. Morrison, who graduates with her law degree in May, says that she found the hearing stirring.
“I care a lot about the rights of youth, and I thought this was a really important case,” she explains, adding that she felt personally empowered by the experience. “There’s something inspiring about watching a black Nova Scotian woman arguing in front of the Supreme Court, because that simply wouldn’t have happened years ago.”
It’s that sense of empowerment – for law students and clients alike – that drives the lawyers of DLAS.
“It’s what we’re about,” says Ms. Hoyte. “We continue to fill our mandate as a community-based poverty law office with the support of law students who work extremely hard we effect change in the lives of our clients and the community. I am really proud to be a part of that experience.”
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