Anyone can end up in court. When the stakes are high, frontline duty counsel lawyers are there for you.
Not commonly known to Albertans, every day in courtrooms across the province, duty counsel lawyers — the unsung heroes of the justice system — provide free legal services to ensure access to justice and fair treatment. They’re the legal team you didn’t know you have.
October 27 is Duty Counsel Day. Initiated by Legal Aid Alberta with all 13 of Canada’s legal aid associations, this is a day to create awareness of your legal rights and the services of legal aid duty counsel. Duty counsel lawyers answered 1.2 million calls for help across Canada last year. Former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson is hosting a virtual celebration with speakers including Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Richard Wagner, and a former duty counsel client who recently earned a law degree. Across the country, landmarks including Niagra Falls, High Level Bridge, and the Burrard Street Bridge will be lit to honour duty counsel.
Many Albertans who appear in courts are self-represented and don’t have a lawyer. They are at risk of serious outcomes if they don’t understand what is happening or what is legally required of them at any given hearing — it could mean losing custody of their children or being held in prison.
This is why duty counsel exist. On the spot, at the courthouse or over the phone, duty counsel are there for you. They provide a free, essential service to all Albertans.
“Courts can be intimidating. Justice system procedures can sound like a foreign language, and there are innumerable rules that can act as a tripwire for the unwary,” says John Panusa, President and CEO of Legal Aid Alberta.
“If you make one wrong decision in court it can affect you for the rest of your life. Duty counsel are the lawyers who swoop in to help you avoid legal mistakes,” Panusa said. “They explain in plain English where you stand and what your options are, allowing you to make a solid plan to move forward.”
Duty counsel lawyers in Alberta address matters pertaining to criminal law, bail hearings, family violence, and child welfare issues. They are required to assess and “triage” a person’s legal situation on the day of court and may represent them in court if appropriate and needed. LAA staff duty counsel also support specialty therapeutic and Indigenous courts and tribunals across the province relating to domestic violence, mental health, drug treatment and institutional matters.
At times, the stakes could not get higher for clients, says LAA staff duty counsel Shilpi Walia, who represents victims of family violence seeking protection.
“People’s lives are in danger,” said Walia, who helps clients secure emergency protection orders. “I understand what can happen at an Emergency Protection Order hearings but our clients don’t, and they’re thankful that we’re here to represent them and speak for them when they’re too afraid to speak for themselves.”
“A duty counsel lawyer is required to provide quick effective legal representation or advice – and that requires a special skill set based on experience and legal knowledge,” says LAA staff duty counsel Andrew Holko.
“We address a range of charges from the most nominal to the most serious that come before the courts, and we can help connect people to support services they may need.”
People who are in police custody and presumed innocent are vulnerable too. They risk losing their jobs or missing child support payments. In addition to handling child welfare, adult and youth criminal courts, and protection from family violence, Legal Aid Alberta staff duty counsel conducted more than 28,000 during the last year — virtually and by phone 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
Across Canada, duty counsel answered the call for help 1.2 million times last year. This essential service is as Canadian as health care and needs to be celebrated.
ABOUT DUTY COUNSEL DAY
– A nationwide celebration of duty counsel and our legal rights on October 27, 2021
– Duty Counsel Day has been declared in the Senate of Canada
– Join elected officials, chief justices and judges, legal aid lawyers, staff, and clients, the legal profession, and justice supporters for a special online event on October 27 at 3 p.m. MST (register here).
– Hosted by former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, it features speakers (including the Rt. Hon. Richard Wagner, Chief Justice of Canada) along with a panel and live music.
– On October 27, major landmarks across the country including Niagara Falls, the CN Tower in Toronto, the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver, Halifax City Hall, and the High Level Bridge in Edmonton will be lit up in recognition of duty counsel day
Interviews with LAA duty counsel lawyers Andrew Holko and Shilpi Walia are available.
Senior Communications Officer
Legal Aid Alberta
QUOTES FOR MEDIA USE:
“No Canadian should have to navigate out justice system alone. This special day is a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the legal aid professionals who work hard to support disadvantaged folks as they face legal challenges. Duty counsel lawyers are critical to ensuring that every individual is aware of their rights and treated with fairness.”
– Alberta Premier Jason Kenney
“Duty counsel provides information, guidance and advice to those who may not otherwise have that. All citizens have a legal right to support, and ultimately, duty counsel help Albertans understand their rights and navigate the complex legal and justice system. Alberta is proud to support all of the good work done by legal aid duty counsel today and every day.”
– Kaycee Madu, Minister of Justice and Solicitor General
“I’d like to acknowledge the Association of Legal Aid (Plans) for recognizing Duty Counsel Day. Duty counsel has played such an important role in access to justice for Indigenous people, ensuring their rights are protected and good representation. Thank you for all the hard work you do for Indigenous people.”
– Al Benson, CEO, Native Counselling Services of Alberta
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.