“You’re here early!” I smiled.
“Yes, I slept here so I wouldn’t forget.” My client replied as he rolled up a sleepingbag.
It was a brisk spring morning. At 8:00 a.m., the streets were mostly empty around Mackenzie Hall Cultural Centre, which is where our hearing before the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board would be held.
Dressed in a black suit with a freshly ironed white collared shirt, I stood in stark contrast to my transient client who was quiet, polite and didn’t show that he was intimidated by the process that was to come. I didn’t tell him that this was my first hearing. He didn’t seem to care enough to ask.
During the entire course of the hearing, my leg was shaking under the table. I stammered and stuttered when I questioned my client and, even more so, when I had to question a police officer that was called as a witness.
My client, on the other hand, was slow and pensive. He admitted to things he couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember how and where he was hit from behind - an attempt by a few inebriated men to rob him - or what emergency surgery he had when he was rushed to the hospital. He couldn’t remember how many staples he received in his head. He couldn’t remember potentially being diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was a child. He did, however, remember how many children he had. How old they are. Where they’re living now.
When the hearing concluded, we were asked to wait outside so the adjudicators could deliberate. My boss, who had been sitting behind me for support, pulled me aside and said that anything in the range of $5,000 - $8,000 would be considered a success. My boss explained that the maximum award the Board offers is $25,000 and that’s only in exceptional circumstances. I nodded. I walked over to my client and told him this information. He too quietly nodded. After having been transient for so long, I got the sense that he was unable to conceptualize that amount of money. We paced up and down the hallway for what felt like hours.
Fifteen minutes later, we were asked to come back into the hearing room. The adjudicators had reached a decision. The main adjudicator looked at my client and, with utmost sincerity, apologized for what he went through. And then, the she read out loud how much compensation he would be awarded.
I’m sorry, what did she just say?
I forced myself to sit still and refrain from letting out a big-toothed smile. I waited impatiently through her reading of the usual details of when it will be awarded and how he can expect to receive it.
In the hallway, I smiled and laughed. My boss’ jaw practically on the floor.
I turned to my client.
“Are you happy?” I asked.
“Yes.” My client quietly answered, with a smile creeping slowly across his face.
“What are you going to do with the money?”
“Visit my children.”
He was calm, cool and collected. While I expected him to be overjoyed, I now recognize that money, even for someone who has little of it, doesn’t heal old wounds. He still had memory issues. He still had schizophrenia. He still was transient. But I hoped, from the bottom of my heart, that this would at least provide him options that hadn’t been given to him for a very long time. He told me he was going to treat himself that afternoon to a cup of coffee.
Four and a half years later, I still chase the feelings that I experienced that cool spring day. I was twenty-three at the time and had no litigation experience. I was a student who had just finished her first year of law school. I doubted my abilities. But after receiving that outcome, I began to realize that doing the hard work and never losing sight of the small light at the end of the dark tunnel is more than enough to land a successful outcome.
Acknowledging what someone has experienced matters more than the outcome itself.
The feeling of learning that regardless of age, gender or years of experience, someone as inexperienced as myself can still hold their own against a fifty year-old lawyer who has been practicing for thirty years, simply because they give more fucks, meant everything to me.
That afternoon, I returned to the office with three new truths written in my heart and mind.
1. A small window of opportunity is as good an opportunity as any. Ignore the probabilities. Focus on attacking it with all that you have.
2. Money can't compensate for loss and harm, but sometimes it can certainly help.
3. It doesn't matter how young or inexperienced you are (or what someone tells you you are) — you have a voice. Voice beckons power. Use that power for good.
Justice. Acknowledgment. Self-confidence.
There is no reason in the world to doubt your strength.