Michael Ford (post until Oct. 31/19)
Personal Injury

Fighting injustice a long-time passion for Mahabir

Access to justice has always been important to Toronto personal injury lawyer Jessica B. Mahabir, so law school was a natural next step following undergraduate studies in English literature at the University of Toronto.

“I enjoyed writing but I pictured myself in an advocacy role through my writing,” says Mahabir, who joined Derfel Injury Lawyers, a boutique Toronto firm, last year. “Going into law afforded me the opportunity to do that, to help people, and to use my writing skills to advocate for them.”

Leaving her native Toronto for Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba Law School provided an especially rich opportunity to work in social justice, Mahabir tells AdvocateDaily.com. During her first year, a professor founded the Canadian Journal of Human Rights, the only scholarship of its kind in Canada.

Mahabir signed on as a junior editor, and in her final year, worked up to a full-time editorial position. The Journal went on to develop a partnership with the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, which opened in Winnipeg in 2014, the same year Mahabir was called to the bar.

“It was very inspiring,” she says of her editorial work. It also exposed her to the rigorous process of peer review, as well as the range of international human rights research.

“It really extended my horizons,” Mahabir says. 

It helped her to realize that the original focus of her studies needed a rethink.

“You go into law school very idealistic about how you’re going to change the world,” she says. “Slowly you realize that there aren’t quite as many opportunities for young lawyers to practise human rights law as you thought.”

Articling was a chance not just to land a job, but to explore other kinds of law, including personal injury, which Mahabir first encountered during a summer position. She saw how it had a strong social justice component.

“I realized there were many people out there who had been injured but didn’t know what their rights were, or that there were funds to help them get better, to get treatment, and recourse against the person who injured them,” she says.

And in her practice, which is exclusively plaintiff personal injury litigation, “I continue to do the work in as ethical a way as possible, staying true to myself.”

She also draws on prior work experience with a legal marketing company to use social media, blog writing and other content to share information that is relevant and informative.

Mahabir is concerned, for instance, about a general lack of knowledge among the public about auto insurance.

“I think that something we as personal injury lawyers can do is to educate people about the options available to them,” she says. She encourages friends and family to upgrade their auto insurance, as she herself has done.

“It’s a hard thing to sell because no one wants to pay more for their auto insurance,” Mahabir says. “But if you think about it logically, for an extra $20, if you were seriously injured, it’s well worth it to have double the coverage.”

Mahabir has appeared extensively before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice as well as the Financial Services Commission of Ontario, and while she loves being in the courtroom, the majority of cases don’t make it there, as most of the insurance companies she deals with want to avoid expensive trials.

“Ninety-five per cent of the time it is in their financial interest to settle,” she says.

Most of her practice results from car accidents, as well as slip-and-fall mishaps, long-term disability denials, and the occasional assault charge.

Whatever the case, Mahabir’s approach is to stand firm from the get-go.

“Often insurance companies try to bully you through 100 small motions designed to wear you down or deplete your resources,” she says. “I’ll put up the fight even on a small matter. If you’re constantly backing down, even on an administrative issue, it sends the tone you’re weak. I think in the long run it pays off.”  

It all goes back to her commitment to fight for what’s right.  

“I always had the sense when there was some sort of injustice, or someone was being bullied, it was important to speak up,” Mahabir says. “I do not take that lightly.”

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