Jackie's story: How legal aid changed her life

By Suzette Narbonne

Suzette is a practising lawyer and former LSS board chair.

Woman feeling despair

A client of mine has asked me to share her story — except for her name. I will call her Jackie. Jackie had been in an emotionally abusive relationship for 30 years. She had never held down a job. She had never had a bank account. Her husband first introduced her to alcohol. He then introduced her to drugs. He inherited a huge amount of money and squandered it on crazy business deals. At her lowest point, Jackie was not able to get up — except to do more drugs. Her husband forced her to sign a paper that put a lien on the house. Her children wouldn’t even talk to her.

One day she managed to get to a transition house. And the very first thing they did was get her connected to Legal Aid. Legal Aid then called me and I took her file.

When I met Jackie she was fragile. She just wanted to get out of the nightmare she was in. The first thing she did was check herself into a treatment program. When she came out of that, we met again. Her husband had made her an offer: he would keep the house; he would keep the debt. He would never pay her any support. He would pay for the divorce, and they would call it fair. She said, yes, let’s do it. I said, no, you’re not doing that. This is after a 30-year marriage and she is willing just to take this offer and walk away because she doesn’t have the ability to take care of herself at this point.

Turning the corner

Without legal aid, there is no way she could have persevered with her case. She didn’t have the skills, and she didn’t have the strength. Her husband had a job, he a lawyer, and he made his offer sound really good. 

Through the course of my legal relationship with Jackie, she was able to build a lot of confidence. She opened up a bank account. She found a job. It was the first time in her life she had ever stood up to her husband.

It also turned out that the financial picture was not quite as bleak as her husband had suggested to her. So at the end of this, she was able to get a reasonable property settlement. She was able to get some spousal support, and she got her divorce.  

This would not have happened without legal aid. But you should know that Jackie would not necessarily even qualify for legal aid right now. She only met our criteria for discretionary spending, which we can only do when we have the money in our budget.

If Jackie had not got legal aid, she would have given up her legal rights. And many of the Jackies of the world, if they don’t give up their rights, they try to self-represent and, often, they don’t truly get justice under the law. That’s why what legal aid does is so important.