Brenda Picard welcomes Human Rights post

Mount Stewart woman is changing gears after long run as legal aid lawyer

Jim Day
Published on March 8, 2014

Brenda Picard has tallied an impressive volunteer record over the years working with many provincial and national organizations relating to family violence prevention, restorative justice and conflict resolution.

©Guardian photo by Jim Day

Brenda Picard decided way back in Grade 8 she wanted to go to law school one day.

The appeal of the profession, concedes the relatively new executive director of the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission and former long-time legal aid lawyer, was nothing terribly noble at the time.

Looking back, the 51-year-old Mount Stewart resident believes her interest in becoming a lawyer was simply sparked by all the crime shows she had been watching on television at the time while growing up in Kensington.

She went on to enter law school with no specific area of the field in mind in which she might like to pursue. She would. though, eventually get a good diverse taste of the legal profession after receiving her bachelor of laws degree in 1985 from Dalhousie University.

Picard first worked in public legal education, updating and revising material during a short-term contract.

The education component would be a consistent one in her career while her jobs would vary in interesting fashion over the ensuing years.

“I always had an interest in being able to share the knowledge and communicate and teach be able to help people in understanding what their options were,’’ says Picard.

After working three rather unsatisfying years in a private practice with a small law firm in Nova Scotia, Picard returned to P.E.I. to work as the coordinator of transition and support services in Summerside.

Working for the Transition House Association of P.E.I. that provides a safe place for abused women and their children was an eye opener. Picard quickly discovered that women in abusive situations come from all walks of life and hold the full spectrum of socio-economic status.

“Some of the experiences were quite horrific and you see them in a TV movie and think that would never happen here, but it does,’’ she adds.

Picard next opened a small general law practice with Kathleen Craig. She did criminal defense work but would not represent people charged with family violence because she continued to be involved with East Prince Family Violence Committee and Partners for Prevention of Family Violence.

In fact, Picard has tallied an impressive volunteer record over the years working with many provincial and national organizations relating to family violence prevention, restorative justice and conflict resolution. In 2007, she received the inaugural Community Service Award from the P.E.I. Law Society. She was also appointed Queens Counsel that year.

The bulk of Picard’s career has been as a legal aid lawyer, a job she held for 18 years on Prince Edward Island before taking the top post with the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission in August.

For that long stretch, Picard did not get to choose her clients. They were chosen for her.

She was quick to adopt the thinking of a fellow legal aid lawyer who noted that while he didn’t like the things that many of his clients did, that didn’t mean he couldn’t represent them. She believes in the old adage of better to have 10 guilty men go free, than one innocent man go to jail.

“To me it’s almost more difficult to defend somebody that I think actually is innocent because then the pressure is really on to make sure that justice is done.’’

Picard would handle two dockets a week, one in Georgetown and one in Charlottetown. Those two days in court would see her representing 30 to 60 clients. She said the volume was hectic.

Cyndria Wedge, director of prosecutions with the Crown Attorneys Office, lauds the work Picard did as a legal aid lawyer, noting she had the ability to show great empathy towards her clients while skillfully juggling a very heavy case load.

“She made a difference for her clients,’’ says Wedge. “She had a great ability to understand the bundles of issues that her clients presented to legal aid.’’

The most difficult cases for Picard during her long run as a legal aid lawyer were always the ones involving child abuse. Some of her clients were charged but not convicted. Others were found guilty. Then there were those that accepted responsibility and pleaded guilty.

“But having to cross examine a child about allegations of sexual assault, that’s not fun,’’ she says.

Here are a few of the eye-catching headlines of cases Picard had on her plate as defence lawyer:

— Man with 10th drunk driving conviction gets jail time.

— Slapping pregnant girlfriend earns man jail sentence.

— Woman fined for kicking Mountie, throwing shoe at security camera.

— Mouthwash thief jailed after assaulting guard.

— Court hears details of threesome involving incest.

Picard sees her new job as a welcome change of pace from those types of cases. Her current position offers an opportunity to explore some other areas of the law. Helping to administer and enforce the Prince Edward Island Human Rights Act, Picard is shifting from criminal law to administrative law.

“There’s opportunities to educate people about human rights issues,’’ she says.

“There’s opportunities to help complainants who we feel have had their rights trampled on or their rights violated.’’

Picard says once she gets over the learning curve, she sees her new job being more flexible and less time consuming than her former hectic life of a legal aid lawyer.

That hopefully will spell more time for leisure interests like kayaking and travel, but most importantly will allow the single mother, who remains busy with different church groups, even more special time with her 11-year-old son Micah Wiltshire.