Nils Jensen prosecuted many serious criminal cases as Crown counsel in Nelson in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. But it was a civil suit he filed over $8.61 that grabbed headlines across the country.
Jensen, the former Oak Bay mayor who died of cancer April 7 at age 69, took the Toronto-Dominion Bank to court for overcharging him on his credit card payments — and won.
Jensen paid his Chargex (Visa) bill on time each month, but in 1980 discovered it was taking up to two weeks for the bank to process his payments and credit his account. In the meantime, they were collecting interest. So he sued for breach of contract.
Toronto-Dominion argued Visa was a separate entity and therefore a payment to the bank was not a payment to the credit card company. They further said interest should accrue unless there was an unreasonable delay in transferring payment.
However, Judge James Keffer said the bank had misinterpreted its own credit card contract, ruling Visa and Toronto-Dominion were “very closely related … indeed strictly on the evidence, one could conclude that Chargex and the bank are one and the same entity.
“Could Jensen have been expected to know then that payments on the Chargex account to the bank in Nelson were not deemed by the bank to be payments to Chargex? The answer, I think, is no … the bank and Chargex are at least closely interrelated and Mr. Jensen had the right to presume that payment to one would be payment to the other.”
Keffer awarded Jensen $8.61 plus costs and interest. The case drew national media attention and Jensen was deluged with interview requests.
One newspaper described him as “the lawyer who kicked the bank in the knee.” A columnist called him “a modern day David, with a winning record against a number of Goliaths.” (He previously sued BC Tel as a student after they cut off his phone without telling him why and took on a developer that began demolishing his apartment building — while he was still living there.)
“I did it for the principle of the thing,” Jensen said, “although I enjoy the academic points raised. It gives me an adrenalin flow as does all law.”
He said he hoped the bank would “find all the people they have improperly charged interest and reimburse them.” Instead, the bank filed a swift appeal.
“It’s obvious the bank is very concerned about the judgment,” Jensen told Nelson Daily News reporter Rita Moir. “But people on the street are saying ‘Great, it’s good to hear someone is finally taking the banks to task.’”
On the day the appeal was scheduled to be heard, the bank instructed its lawyer, Blair Suffredine, to drop the case without explanation. “They’ve decided to abandon it,” Jensen’s lawyer Greg Walsh said. “Draw your own inferences.”
By then, Jensen had left Nelson to study for a master of law degree at the London School of Economics.
Jensen and his wife Jean came to Nelson from Vancouver. Veteran local lawyer Ken Wyllie recalls Jensen was “not warmly embraced by some of the older defence lawyers who found him to be a bit of a hard ass.
“One senior counsel developed a particularly fractured and rather hostile relationship with Nils, who declined to embark on pre-trial negotiations in the bar of the Hume Hotel. As Nils recalled later to me, he wasn’t going to be intimidated or bullied by what he called ‘bafflegab and BS fueled by beer.’”
However, according to Wyllie, Jensen’s reputation may have come back to haunt him when another senior lawyer was appointed a provincial court judge and was sitting in Kaslo, shortly before the courthouse closed in 1982.
“Apparently Nils was slightly delayed at the RCMP detachment and when the list was called at 9:30 a.m, the judge announced he’d allow a brief stand down to await Mr. Jensen’s arrival. The judge then dismissed the entire court list for want of prosecution — at approximately 9:33 a.m.”
In 1979, Jensen asked a judge to issue an arrest warrant for Nelson native and New York Islanders defenceman Pat Price after he failed to appear in court on assault charges stemming from an incident outside a Nelson hotel.
Price’s lawyer, Mickey Moran, thought he had a deal worked out where Price would plead guilty and not be required to appear in court. Moran and Jensen accused each other of breaking their agreement. Moran called the warrant a “preposterous step,” while Jensen replied that he had no choice. (Price was given a conditional discharge and at Jensen’s suggestion, ordered to teach for free at a local hockey school.)
Jensen was a peripheral player in a controversy that erupted after Moran was himself accused of drunk driving. Moran pleaded guilty to a lesser offence and was given an absolute discharge. The Crown appealed the sentence, but Jensen said he was instructed to drop it on orders from on high.
Allegations swirled that deputy attorney-general Richard Vogel personally interfered in that case and two others, but an investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing. (Vogel later won a $125,000 libel judgment against the CBC, at the time the second-highest award in Canadian history.)
Jensen also prosecuted arson cases against members of the Sons of Freedom, including one where details from a confidential police file on the death of Doukhobor leader Peter (Lordly) Verigin were read in court.
In 2003, he returned to Nelson while campaigning for the leadership of the provincial NDP.
“I’m confident he shall be remembered as a very dedicated and competent Crown counsel by members of the Kootenay bar,” said Wyllie. “I’m saddened to think he was unable to enjoy more of his retirement with his family.”
Wyllie recalls Jensen last worked in the Nelson Crown counsel office in 2015, filling in as holiday relief. He prosecuted a case in Castlegar that Wyllie was defending.
“I chided him for taking a busman’s holiday on the Crown purse, but over lunch we exchanged war stories and I managed to work out a pretty good deal for my client, even though I told him he was still a bit of a hard ass.”