Keir O’Flaherty: Helping people with housing and health legal issues in the Arctic

Keir O Flaherty

Civil/Administrative Law Counsel — Legal Services Board of Nunavut 

Keir O’Flaherty became interested in the law while studying the humanities, especially philosophy and rhetoric. At the start of his legal career, Keir worked briefly in legal aid and found himself drawn to it and duty counsel work.  

As duty counsel, Keir speaks with people in Nunavut who need legal guidance about civil law issues such as housing and mental health, both of which often require an urgent need for immediate assistance. Potential eviction from one’s home is always stressful, but eviction near or above the Arctic Circle can have a significant impact on a person’s health and well-being, making housing security a major issue in Nunavut.   

Duty counsel either provides summary assistance for the person immediately or diverts them into formal representation. With summary assistance, duty counsel provides advice but does not have a formal relationship with the client.  

“In civil matters, we attempt to reasonably address issues as best we can, depending on the perceived needs,” Keir says. “In some situations, the client will need to make a formal application for representation in order to meet our statutory obligations. However, they have an absolute right to call, and we can give them counsel on a number of issues and strive to do so immediately.” 

Many Canadians have never dealt with a lawyer before, and duty counsel is often their first point of access to justice. They need a lawyer who can provide information about what is happening that led to their interaction with the justice system, whether through the police, a residential tenancy board, a municipal agency, or another entity. 

“Duty counsel provides people with knowledge and addresses the unknowns for them, so they can come into harmony with what’s occurring through understanding,” Keir explains.   

In addition to helping clients navigate the necessities of life in the north, working as duty counsel in Nunavut is unique in other ways. While duty counsel in other jurisdictions may be more focused on criminal law, the civil legal aid system is a major focus in Nunavut. The largest portion of clientele are Inuit who experience the law differently from people in other parts of Canada. 

“This is a territory in which the legal practice concerns itself with a people that are distinct and have a culture, history and experience that is distinct from the general Canadian experience in a legal sense,” Keir says. “The law — excluding Quebec — is rooted in the English experience. The common law is that of the Anglo-Canadian world, and how it is experienced by the Inuit people is historically a novel experience.”  

It’s that intersection of the state with the lives of people that attracts Keir to duty counsel. 

“There is always a possibility for the enfranchisement of all in some form of real equality before the law,” he says.  

Learn more about the Legal Services Board of Nunavut.

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