Denied legal aid for years, Yellowknife woman with multiple sclerosis finally gets justice

Yellowknife resident Elizabeth Portman applied for legal aid and was turned down.
Yellowknife resident Elizabeth Portman applied for legal aid and was turned down. (Photo: iStock)

Legal aid is supposed to be provided to the most vulnerable people in Canadian society who cannot afford lawyers.

Unfortunately, not all legal aid offices seem to understand that they are there to help those who need it most, as the next case demonstrates.

Yellowknife, NT, resident Elizabeth Portman, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, applied for legal aid in 2011 and was turned down. The Northwest Territories legal aid office rejected her request because the board stated that it doesn’t handle human rights complaints.

She then appealed her decision to the executive director of the legal services board but was rejected again and given the same explanation that the legal aid office does not provide help for human rights cases, even though she made it clear that she was disabled and had no other recourse.

After the rejection, she filed a complaint with the Northwest Territories Human Rights Commission alleging the legal aid office was discriminating against her based on disability when failing to provide her with legal help.

A tribunal agreed with her and said that the legal aid office had a duty to accommodate her to the point of “undue hardship,” which it failed to do.

The tribunal was also incredulous that a person with disabilities and little recourse would be denied badly needed legal help, because “In the NWT, Legal Aid funding, through the GNWT is the only way that persons with certain disabilities have genuine access to the human rights complaint process.”

“As a citizen of the NWT, Ms. Portman is entitled to effective access to justice which encompasses equal access to the human rights complaint process. Without legal aid, Ms. Portman does not have meaningful access to it,” the tribunal concluded.

For her part, Portman was forced to wait almost five years before seeing any justice, which has taken a toll on her lifestyle and health.

She wrote, "My life has also been on hold, savings gone, unemployable with declining health, living on income support in a city riddled with barriers and ignorance."

The tribunal ordered not only that the government was to refrain from denying people with disabilities legal aid, especially for human rights cases and to reconsider Portman’s application for legal aid. It also awarded her $10,000 for her distress.

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