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Campaign launched in Montreal to support Denis Poitras, "the protesters' lawyer"

Fundraising push aims to help veteran counsellor regain his legal practice

by Tim McSorley

Montreal lawyer Denis Poitras, who for the past two decades has represented political activists in Montreal. A fundraising campaign was launched to support him, after he declared bankruptcy following years of taking on pro bono cases. PHOTO: AidonsDenisPoitras.org
Montreal lawyer Denis Poitras, who for the past two decades has represented political activists in Montreal. A fundraising campaign was launched to support him, after he declared bankruptcy following years of taking on pro bono cases. PHOTO: AidonsDenisPoitras.org

His number is known by thousands of people involved in community organizing and social movements in Quebec. Some have it committed to memory, others written on their forearms or stuffed into their wallets before going to protests where they may face arrest. Hundreds of those have called his number to seek help when they did run into problems with the police.

Now they are coming together to help the man at the other end of that phone line.

Denis Poitras, a Montreal criminal defence lawyer who has principally represented activists for the past two decades, declared personal bankruptcy on July 17, resulting in him being immediately disbarred by the Quebec Bar Association. In Quebec, lawyers who declare bankruptcy are automatically disbarred.

The morning of Monday, August 5th, saw the launch of "Aidons Denis Poitras" ("Help Denis Poitras"), a fundraising campaign to help Poitras raise the funds to pay off his creditors, online at http://aidonsdenispoitras.org. Some well-known figures in Quebec have already expressed their support for Poitras via the new site, including Québec Solidaire Member of the National Assembly Amir Khadir and Anarchopanda.

"Keeping Denis Poitras from practicing law will do nothing but deepen the rift which separates citizens from the justice system," reads the press release issued by campaign organizers. "It's in this spirit that we are calling on your solidarity! We invite you to support this campaign by sharing a short message of support and by making a donation that falls within your means."

It appears that supporters have heard the call: the campaign had already raised more than $7,000 in less than 24 hours.

The prolific lawyer had more than 1,000 clients at the time of being disbarred; they will need to find new lawyers, and once they do their files will be transferred. Poitras can ask to be readmitted to the Quebec Bar once he reaches an agreement with his creditors.

He maintains that his financial problems have come in large part from taking on numerous cases of political activists. He often represents them without pay since many don’t have the financial capacity to pay for an adequate defence and do not qualify for legal aid in Quebec.

"I've worked for free on numerous files, because the accused - often youth and the most vulnerable - didn't have access to legal aid and they we not able to pay a lawyer to defend them," he writes. "I did it out of conviction, on principle, while gnawing away my fees. Practicing law in these difficult conditions for several years led me to a financially untenable situation."

Poitras says he makes $25,000 per year.

The campaign is not just about raising money for Poitras, but raising awareness of the inadequacy of legal aid and access to legal representation in Quebec. Since 1995, when the Quebec government instituted it's "zero-deficit" agenda by slashing public services, it has been incredibly difficult to access legal aid. As the campaign points out, an individual working full-time at minimum wage in Quebec – earning just $21,100 per year – would not qualify for legal aid.

"A grave problem concerning access to justice persists, and the lawyers who choose to devote themselves to defending the most marginalized and impoverished people therefore find themselves in particularly precarious financial situations," argue the campaign organizers in the press release.

Anarchopanda, who became an outspoken and visible government critic during the 2012 student strike, has been working closely with Poitras on a constitutional challenge of Montreal's P-6 by-law, which places restrictions on the ability to protest in the city. "It's clear to me that one of the reasons that Denis hasn't been able to take care of his own affairs is because he's taken care of so much of ours lately," he says in a support video. "So for me, it's a fair return that now we take care of him, to help him to quickly regain his law practice."

A fundraising concert and BBQ is also being organized for Sept. 14 at Katacombes, featuring the band Mise En Demeure, among others.

The campaign will continue until September 6th. The money raised will be entirely used to help Poitras pay off his creditors. Tuesday, August 6th, he will be meeting with them to discuss payment of his debts.

WATCH: Support video for Denis Poitras:

Tim McSorley is an editor with the Media Co-op.


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Topics: Solidarity
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