Meet the lawyer who’s defending students against Kingston landlords

John Done reflects on career, talks “slumlords” and academic appeals

Local lawyer provides legal services to those who need them most.
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In a small office on Bagot St., John Done works into the evening. On the wall is a child’s crayon drawing of a house in the sunshine. He’s taken the case of a young boy who’s been suspended from school twice this year. The boy's mother says his behaviour arises naturally from his disability—but the school board disagrees. 

John Done, a local lawyer, has been defending Queen’s students and Kingston community members for 31 years. It’s the little things he does—like offering drives home after hearings in court or buying them lunch out of pocket—that make Done someone extraordinary.

Currently, he’s working the case of a woman whose Ontario Disability Support cheque is being reduced because she didn’t report income while she was acutely ill from bipolar affective disorder. The next day, he’ll represent a 60-year-old man with disabilities who was forcibly evicted from the Kozy Inn on Princess St. with no notice because it claims to be a motel. 

Done, executive director of Kingston Community Legal Clinic (KCLC), practices law to provide services for those who are disadvantaged within Canada’s justice system. Sometimes, that includes Queen’s students who find themselves in a dispute with a local landlord. 

After working in private practice for two years, Done transferred to work in psychiatric hospitals, helping those who were involuntarily detained get out. But, after three years, he missed going to court.

Done moved to Kingston in 1986 and applied for funding to open the KCLC. Nine months later, the funding came through and Done, initially a member of the board of directors, was hired in August 1988. He still remembers the date exactly. The clinic is community-based, and only serves those who are low-income or marginalized, providing services not typically covered in private practice. 

“I’ve worked here continuously since and I’ve never had an unhappy day,” Done said in an interview with The Journal. 

For Done, choosing work because it’s important to somebody, regardless of their capacity to pay, offers him more job satisfaction than earning a six-figure salary on Bay St. in Toronto. He sees his work as an opportunity to address systemic injustices that disproportionately affect low-income people—and Done has devoted his life to it. 

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“Seeing a lawyer is like seeing your priest or your rabbi. We don’t pass judgment, we just help,” Done said. He’s represented students threatened with eviction from Queen’s residences for misbehaviour and those in rental properties across Kingston. 

As previously reported by The Journal in 2018, a household of Queen’s students on William St.—who faced more than $10,000 in damages from landlord Phil Lam—had the claim reduced to $700 thanks to Done. 

The students went to Done at KCLC for help after their hearing was scheduled during exam season. Despite already working more than 10 cases, Done offered to represent them—and drove them home after court too. When asked why he goes the extra mile for clients, he simply said he happens to like all the people he represents. 

“I have a daughter who I hope will be a Queen’s student in September, and if she were required to go to a court or an administrative tribunal, I’d want to make sure that there was an adult over 25 who was going to be looking after her,” he said. 

“I don’t want it to sound like I infantilize Queen’s students—they are smart, motivated people—but when they’re interacting with the justice system, that’s typically not an area where they belong.”

Although most of the cases KCLC deals with are housing issues, he’s also represented students when they have disputes with the University itself. Some of the most satisfying work he’s done is with academic appeals, which he says he enjoys for two reasons. 

“Having had to withdraw myself in my first year, I’m aware of the multiple opportunities for students to fail or to be forced to withdraw from university, and those opportunities fall more heavily on low income students who don’t have a parent who graduated.”

Done is the first person in his family to graduate high school, let alone university and law school. He said the opportunity to intervene, to keep a student in school and potentially make a difference to the happiness and earnings in their lifetime, is tremendously rewarding. 

Second, Done said he believes administration can be heavy-handed when it comes to student appeals, so working on them forces administrators to justify their cases against students. 

“It gives back some dignity to the student that she might have lost in the course of whatever difficulty she was having, and it signals to that student that she has rights.”

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Several times each month, landlords in Kingston make applications to the Landlord and Tenant Board to terminate a tenancy due to alleged damages, he said. Because of the frequency of these kinds of cases, Done and his team, William Florence and Sarah Forsyth, are well-versed in the proceedings. 

Several landlords—who Done wouldn’t identify, but referred to as “slumlords”—apply to the Landlord and Tenant Board every week to evict tenants or obtain orders requiring them to pay. 

“We get to know all the regular names,” he said. “And these have changed over the 31 years I’ve worked here, but they’ve changed remarkably little.”

According to Done, being a housing lawyer in Kingston is different than in other university towns because most of its housing stock is decrepit, and aging rapidly. He said he doesn’t think it’s as bad as it was 10 or 20 years ago, but many students don’t enforce their landlords’ duties to maintain their property.

And, at the end of the year landlords can sue these tenants for further damages, often resulting in a court date during the exam period so students struggle to prepare their case and appear in court. 

Done stressed it’s important for students to engage with the legal issues they face and that they have a right to be heard. According to him, landlords will typically overreach, filing claims for more money than they’re entitled to.

“It’s like the old adage, that 80 per cent of it is just showing up—about 80 per cent is just engaging in the dispute,” he said.

He doesn’t typically represent individual students who have disrepair problems. But, when landlords take eviction action against a household, particularly during exam time—when Queen’s Legal Aid (QLA) isn’t operating—KCLC takes on the case.  

Most of the time, he said, only about 20 per cent of cases where tenants engage a lawyer make it to a hearing. They can be settled or tossed out without a formal hearing. 

According to Done, a potential benefit of students paying attention to property maintenance is to combat rising rental prices in the University District. If landlords don’t uphold their duty to maintain properties—mandated in standard leases—tenants can apply for rent abatement by appealing to the Landlord and Tenant Board for a portion of the rent paid back. 

Done sees rising rental prices in the University District as nothing new. He said landlords know that students are prepared to pay more than other community members, basing their decision on the assumption that it’s the students’ parents who are paying. 

“Landlords will always charge what they can,” he said. “And when housing turns over, when there’s a new lease, there’s no restriction on what they can charge.”

“If students can learn how to assert themselves with the help of a lawyer, that’s a great lesson to obtain before they graduate.” 

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