For several years I have read the shortlist for the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. I like to review the books and determine my choice for the winner.
This year the short list consisted of:
1.) The Boat People by Sharon Bala;
2.) Class Action by Steven B. Frank; and,
3.) The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey.
It would hard to find three books more diverse in legal fiction. Where last year’s trio all had “thriller” aspects to them none of this year’s selections were “thrillers”.
In considering the book I thought should win the award I like to focus on the Award criterion which sets out the Award is to go “to a book length work of fiction that best illuminates the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change”.
Class Action saw an unlikely plaintiff for a class action in Sam Warren, a 6th grader in Los Angeles, who takes on the education establishment of America with his legal challenge to homework.
Without a lawyer, his elderly neighbor Mr. Kalman, to file and frame the action Sam would have had no recourse against the tyranny of homework. He asserts that homework is preventing kids from being kids. They are unable to simply play or pursue personal interests.
Lawyers have effected change through actions involving schools. The process of de-segregating America was accelerated by the decision in Brown v. The Board of Education that rejected the principle of separate but equal schools.
Sam has a worthy cause.
The Widows of Malabar Hill delved into women’s issues in Bombay in 1921. The first woman solicitor in the city, Perveen Mistry, is caught up in the drama over an estate to be distributed between the three widows and their children of a Moslem businessman.
Mistry faces discrimination as many are unhappy with a woman becoming a lawyer.
Without preaching Massey deals with cultural issues of women in the early 20th Century in India. The wives were isolated from contacts with males living in a divided home. Mistry, after marrying another Parsi was forced by her in-laws to be in seclusion when she was menstruating.
Mistry was changing society by leading the way for women to be lawyers in colonial India.
While certainly aware of her status as the first woman lawyer in the city she focuses on proving she is a capable solicitor and is committed to the best interests of her clients.
The Boat People was a thought provoking book on the questions of refugees arriving by ocean on the shores of a First World country. In the book 503 Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka after its brutal civil war arrive off the west coast of Canada.
The refugees are interned and put through rigorous vetting by federal adjudicators considering their refugee claims.
The Boat People was unique in fully considering the personalities and issues of claimants, adjudicators and lawyers.
The story of Mahindar and his son, Sellian, was wrenching. Separated on arrival they spend months awaiting a final decision.
Who qualifies as a refugee when documentary evidence is sparse and the claimants are desperate?
Lawyers have long been the defenders of the damned and forlorn. Government ministers, on little evidence, claim there will be Tamil Tigers among the passengers. The claimants, but for a few cannot speak English and have no resources. If they had no lawyers they would be lost in a complex legal process.
The Boat People demonstrated that it is the lawyers representing refugee claimants who are society’s representatives in ensuring there are just hearings preventing arbitrary deportations.
The Boat People was the choice of the judges of the Prize and I agree with them this year. I believe Bala is the first winner not be an American author.
Refugees have been a major legal issue through the 20th Century and now into the 21st Century. For many decades claimants had little chance for legal representation. The Boat People illustrates the importance of lawyers in the refugee process. As well I appreciated the thoughtful portrayals of individuals on all sides of the adjudication process. No one was demonized or mocked who had a contrary view to the author.
Until you stand with a client fighting against the Government of a nation it is hard to understand the weight upon your shoulders as a lawyer.