Noah Evanchuk and Brendan Pyle fully understand the importance of obtaining adequate legal representation in the Saskatchewan judicial system.
For the two Regina lawyers, the bulk of their files are criminal defense cases, most of which are surplus from an already overburdened Saskatchewan Legal Aid Commission.Furthermore, both Evanchuk and Pyle say that the majority of their clients are Aboriginal, poor and underprivileged. These people, they state, are precisely the group that the judicial system needs to most ensure is given a fair and just hearing.
“As a criminal defense lawyer, you are often cast in the role of David versus Goliath,” Pyle says. “You’re generally standing for a single individual against the collective resources of the modern state. We live in a rights based society and an individual cannot be discriminated against on the basis of age, race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, national or ethnic origin. But, if someone has a criminal record, they can be denied employment and if they are involved in a criminal proceeding, their liberty can and is routinely deprived.”
Evanchuk adds that there is a less-than level playing field in terms of access to representation in the criminal justice system. “What we see now is the genesis of two classes of accused in our system today,” he says. “Those who can afford privatecounsel through their own means versus those who either have legal aid or court appointed counsel. Additionally, and perhaps most troubling, there is a third class of accused developing; those who are self represented, who obviously have absolutely no understanding of the criminal justice system – and this is because representation is becoming cost prohibitive.”
Evanchuk and Pyle are independent sole practitioners at the Regina law office of Andrews, Benko, Elliot, Rondeau, Hawkins, Pyle, Evanchuk and MacIsaac. Both obtained their law degrees at the University of Saskatchewan and both are active members of the NDP.
Pyle, who comes from a long family line of CCF and NDP supporters, first became active in the Saskatchewan Young New Democrats while a student at the U of S. Evanchukfirst cut his teeth in the Alberta Young New Democrats while pursuing an undergraduate degree in political science at the University of Calgary. Since moving to this province,he has also been active in the Saskatchewan NDP.
As well, Evanchuk and Pyle both started out their legal careers at larger firms. Pyle was at Merchant Law Group for three years while Evanchuk was at Balfour Moss LLP for three years as well before joining his current firm in February of this year.
In making the change, both say they were enticed by the opportunity to be employed in a smaller and more flexible firm, work with friends and practice criminal law full time.
“If you go to a corporate practice, especially now that the economy is booming, you will be fed very good work, you will make your billable hour targets and you’ll do fine,”Pyle says. “What you won’t do is you won’t see a client, you won’t open up your own files, you won’t hardly ever take a file to court and you will probably never go to court on your own file. In this business, criminal law, you are looking for work all the time and all of the work that you find you will be responsible for from beginning to end.”
“I was becoming increasingly drawn to the practice of criminal law for a number of reasons,” Evanchuk adds on his decision to switch firms. “First and foremost, criminal law is the only practice area in litigation where a lawyer is in court on a daily basis. I get the opportunity to make argument and run trials through my criminal defense practice that I wouldn’t have
otherwise if I was solely focused on civil litigation.”
Both Evanchuk and Pyle are concerned with the societal trend towards over litigation in the criminal justice system, often driven more by politics than common sense. At the same time, as the number of criminal cases going through the court system has been steadily increasingly, public resources to ensure all accused are receiving adequate representation has not kept up.
“In criminal and family law I believe we are approaching a market failure in the system where the costs of litigation and the nature of people’s rights at stake in court cannot be handled by the private system anymore,” Pyle says.
Evanchuk adds, particularly in the youth justice system, there appears to be more of an eagerness to pursue charges than was the case in the past. “Fifty years ago, if two young lads were to get into a dust up on the schoolyard, there would be a stern finger wagging from a principal,” he says. “Now, they’re up on charges of violent crime, and they are going to end up with a criminal record…presumably their chances of getting employment being reduced. In Regina, we’re seeing more charges against young people that in the past a parent, principal or a police officer would have stepped in with a lecture. Now that child will be saddled with a criminal record which is a heavy millstone for anyone to have to carry.”
Although he says he knows it sounds clichéd, Evanchuk believes the public system as a whole needs to concentrate far more on preventing the causes of youth crime rather than
litigating it. “I know it sounds trite to say we should be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime but I don’t take the latter to be rhetoric,” he says. “In the last three to four months, I have run across countless accused whose parents have been begging child and family services for addictions counseling, grief counseling and mental health counseling – all rebuffed because of a lack of resources. As soon as this person gets charged with a crime and they are convicted, all of a sudden they have access to all of these services. Wouldn’t it be so much easier and wouldn’t we achieve our aims of social justice if we made these programs and counseling available prior?”
Although Pyle says most of the criminal cases he handles end in plea bargain and don’t see trial, it is often a matter of securing more appropriate conditions such as a lesser jail sentence than the Crown was seeking or addictions or mental health counseling services for his clients. Pyle adds that while the criminal justice system in Saskatchewan can certainly be frustrating and could use a lot of improvement in terms of resources, amongst other things, he has no plans of making a career change anytime soon. In general, he still likes going to court everyday.
“It (court) can be long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror and realizing that who knows what’s going to happen when witnesses get up there and start testifying. But, it keeps it interesting for us.”
Reprinted with the permission of the author. Originally published in the February 2007 edition of the Commonwealth