November is Family Violence Prevention Month.
To meet increased demand for emergency protection orders (EPOs) since April, Legal Aid Alberta (LAA) trained its students-at-law to provide after-hours supports for victims of family violence, a first for the organization. This led to a recently assigned staff lawyer position to work after hours to help justices of the peace process the growing number of applications.
LAA’s Emergency Protection Order Program provides immediate protection from family violence 24/7 and is a critical tool to keeping Albertans safe. Extra assistance for victims of domestic violence will make the process of obtaining an EPO much less stressful for clients and improves access to justice during COVID-19.
“Clients are usually very relieved and thankful that someone was there to help them.” Desiree Syroid, student-at-law
During daytime hours, Legal Aid duty counsel lawyers represent EPO applicants in provincial court in front of a judge. At night and on weekends, cases are heard by justices of the peace (JPs) over the phone and by video conference (WebEx). Since COVID-19 hit Alberta, applications have been piling up.
“Before, JPs were doing all the work themselves, and now Legal Aid is there ready to meet with the claimant and vet the application beforehand,” says LAA staff lawyer Christina Riddoch, team lead of the Emergency Protection Order Program in Edmonton. “It’s so beneficial and helpful to the justice of the peace.”
Applications for EPOs in Riddoch’s LAA Edmonton office alone are up by about 10 per cent this year amid COVID-19.
“Finding ways to respond to the pressure”
Over the past few months, Legal Aid Alberta students-at-law have played an instrumental role providing after-hours support for victims of family violence. As a temporary measure, articling students, under the supervision of LAA lawyers, were assigned to the JPs office to take client calls and prepare applications in the evening hours.
Student-at-law Desiree Syroid spent the first few weeks of her Legal Aid work experience talking on the phone with distressed Albertans.
“A lot of the stories are difficult to read and hard to talk about, but I think clients are usually very relieved and thankful that someone was there to help them, to guide them through the process,” says Syroid, a recent graduate from the University of Alberta.
“We are stretched to say the least,” Riddoch added. “We are trying to help with these new processes that have resulted from COVID-19 the best that we can.”
Support for victims of family violence during COVID-19
Legal Aid Alberta can help Albertans get an Emergency Protection Order to keep a violent family member from contacting or coming near them or their children. This is a free service.
Victims of domestic violence are encouraged to contact Provincial Court EPO Duty Counsel in Edmonton at 780.422.4730 and in Calgary at 403.355.4868 to get legal advice on their situation.
Court inconsistent on domestic violence cases during pandemic
Legal Aid staff lawyer Christina Riddoch has seen first-hand the impact of the pandemic on families and safety. She talks to CBC News about a noticeable increase in Emergency Protection Orders.
CBC Edmonton | October 14, 2020
Mental health court showing success two years after its inception
Amna Qureshi, head of the Legal Aid Alberta mental health court team in Edmonton, said the court has completed more than 8,000 cases in the past two years.
Edmonton Journal | October 8, 2020
About Legal Aid Alberta
Legal Aid Alberta is a not-for-profit organization that provides legal representation and support for Albertans facing legal issues.
LAA provides legal services to clients in support of fairness in Alberta’s justice system – services that help ensure Albertans in all circumstances can understand and defend their legal rights.