Words by Jessica Natale Woolard
Lawyers say the courtroom is nothing like you see on TV. But the way Rod Holloway describes cases at the Supreme Court level, you can feel the drama, even if the courtroom performance isn’t Oscar-worthy.
“It feels very, very exciting. You’re going into a courtroom where there are nine judges who are very intelligent and very well briefed, and who know what they’re doing,” he explains. “It’s an intimidating place to go into—you have that great fear you’ll be exposed for the dimwit you maybe really are. But it’s also exhilarating, because it’s the final step in the legal process in Canada.”
Vancouver-born Holloway has defended numerous milestone Supreme Court cases over his 45-year career with the Legal Services Society (LSS). These are the cases that will be in the record books, the ones that make history and establish the law for all of Canada. But, Holloway says, it’s the modest cases—the ones that help people with housing, debt, disability and welfare—that are often the most satisfying.
Problems that appear small in the grand scheme of the law can be life-threatening for the clients involved, he says. “Cases don’t have to be in the big courts to be important.”
A CAREER HELPING OTHERS
Helping people resolve problems is what drew Holloway to work with LSS.
Law wasn’t his first choice for a career. After completing a bachelor of arts at the University of British Columbia in 1968, Holloway wanted to become a teacher, but his father, a teacher himself, encouraged him to go to law school. The dutiful son got his law degree from UBC and was called to the bar in 1973.
Years of articling had left Holloway “cold about the thought of practising law in a traditional setting.” Then he saw a position at LSS, at the time called the Legal Aid Society.
“Being a legal aid lawyer is part being a lawyer, part being a social worker, part being a policy analyst trying to facilitate changes in the law that will help people,” he says. “I thought it might be an interesting way of practising law.”
To describe the career that followed as interesting would be an understatement. Since 1973, Holloway has held numerous positions with the board-run organization that provides legal services to British Columbians who can’t afford a lawyer. He’s worked in management, served as a director of regional offices and of the Vancouver intake office, and worked as a managing lawyer for appeals, the position he currently holds at the head office in downtown Vancouver. He intends to stay until he reaches 75 in 2021.
In this role, Holloway assesses whether people who want an appeal have a strong enough case for LSS to fund them. He also carries a light caseload, to keep his courtroom skills up to snuff.
An avid biker, skier and hiker, Holloway coached rugby at UBC for many years and was the assistant coach of the Canadian national senior men’s team from 1990 to 1996, during which time he accompanied the team to two World Cups in France and South Africa. He also bikes to work in Vancouver every day.
Holloway’s experience in unions goes back to his high school and university days when he worked in the fishing industry, first on a boat and then in a plant in Vancouver. He cut his teeth on solidarity work as a member of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union, where he experienced several strikes and an injunction imposed against the union by union leaders.
Over the years, he has been in and out of the PEA as he flipped between management and staff positions. He would like to be part of the bargaining committee to represent LSS staff lawyers when the next round of bargaining begins.
There are interesting things brewing on the union front, he says. He’s curious to see if the external lawyers LSS hires on contract will organize themselves. When he first started at LSS, he encouraged the support staff to unionize, which they did, joining the British Columbia Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCEGU).
“[The contract lawyers] haven’t had a raise in pay in 15 years,” he says. “They need to be organized to bargain collectively to achieve something better.”
WHERE HAVE ALL THE LAWYERS GONE?
The PEA has been representing LSS staff lawyers since 1981. Since then, the landscape has changed dramatically. At one point, the chapter included 80 lawyers across 50 regional offices; today, the province has just eight staff lawyers based in two regions, Vancouver and Terrace.
“We’ve had huge cutbacks in BC since 2002,” Holloway says. “Many offices shut and have never been reopened. Lawyers and paralegals lost their jobs and have never been replaced.”
The area that has suffered the most, he continues, is representation for poverty law—people facing issues with housing, welfare, disability and debt. He hopes that change will come with the $26 million increase to legal services announced in the February 2018 budget.
As Holloway enters the final stretch of his career, he reflects on cases that have staying power in his mind, usually the ones that have had a lasting impact on individuals.
There was one case involving a man found not criminally responsible by reason of insanity. A psychiatric hospital refused to treat him; Holloway took the case to the Supreme Court, where he convinced the judges that the hospital should be compelled to treat the patient.
Then there was the time Holloway, with two other lawyers, represented Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka who were convicted of people smuggling after they helped transport undocumented passengers on board the Ocean Lady and Sun Sea to Canada in 2009 and 2010. The team convinced the Supreme
Court that people assisting refugees should not be seen as taking part in illegal human trafficking.
He’s also worked on projects to improve the justice system. He helped introduce the Gladue principle, which requires courts to take into account the details of an Aboriginal offender’s history in sentencing and bail decisions. Gladue sentencing reports have become an important tool in efforts to address the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in Canadian prisons.
Holloway says nearly everything he’s worked on has made him glad he went into law.
“Actually, helping someone resolve a problem that is absolutely crucial in their life is really satisfying. When people are poor. . . being able to get them help is make or break for them.”
Adds Holloway: “We have very, very little for people who are poor and have a small civil problem. That’s the part of legal aid I’d like to see restored.”