For Tyler Botten, being a lawyer means more than just defending your client in court – it means providing a voluntary legal service to the street-involved.
Along with his role as a criminal defence lawyer, Botten regularly volunteers for the Ticket Defence Program of Ottawa (TDP).
Working with lawyers and law students, the program aims to provide access to justice for street-involved persons in Ottawa. The program meets many clients through referrals, but also visits shelters and drop-in programs to spread the word.
The program has a history dating back to 2003, but with a relaunch in 2015 Botten was asked if he could help. At that time, he had just left his job at a law firm with plans to open his own and with more time on his hands he agreed.
“I was looking for something to do that was going to be different,” he said.
At any given time, Botten and his colleagues are working on 10 to 15 cases for TDP, along with their primary role at work. The volunteering Botten does is very similar to his day job, but this program makes concrete difference in the lives of those he serves.
“For the individuals we deal with it can be more impactful on them directly,” Botten said.
Albeit most of the tickets Botten deals with through the program are minor, they can have lasting effects.
In work like this, sometimes it’s the consequences of the issue being unresolved that can have more effects than resolving it. In one his most recent cases, a woman was unable to buy a home until she had her creditors cleared.
“I get to deal with real world human problems,” Botten said.
For the homeless, panhandling tickets they can’t pay begin racking up. Without a representative like Botten, the dollars continue to add up without any hope of ending the cycle. Even with his defence, his volunteerism does sometimes feel like it’s not going anywhere.
“The best I can do is just fight the new tickets as they’re coming in,” he said.
The cycle is due to the nature of the work Botten does with the Safe Streets Acts. Aiming to protect the public, the act fails to significantly quantify what panhandlers can and can’t do.
For now, Botten will fight the tickets, but he said, he hopes the program is able to do more to help offenders.
“I would like to know about every Safe Streets Act ticket,” he said.
This data would help him and his colleagues understand how these tickets are being issued and if there is any consistency. Lacking a quantifiable measure makes room for subjectivity amongst officers and that’s where issues arise.
“The legislature at Queens Park can create these parameters, but it’s how it gets filled in that causes problems,” Botten said.
Botten doesn’t advocate for a repeal of the Safe Streets Act, but does recognize that data on how the tickets are being issued could help train frontline police officers and ultimately save our courts time and money.
At the moment, all Botten is focused on is continuing to defend his clients in court and help them avoid the consequences of having minor tickets add up to thousands of dollars. The process can be slow, dealing with one person at a time, but it’s really about making a difference.
“It’s having someone stand up for them.”