Ask a Lawyer: National Duty Counsel Day can be a powerful tool for those heading to court

Legal Aid Alberta staff lawyer Sean Smith shares the significance of knowing your rights and the crucial role of duty counsel in Canada

Legal Aid AB
October 03, 2023

Stepping into a courtroom can feel like entering a whole new world, filled with unfamiliar language and uncertainty. Whether you’re facing a criminal charge, dealing with a family issue, or navigating the immigration process, it’s normal to feel a bit uneasy. Thankfully, Duty Counsel lawyers are here to help.

On this month’s segment of Global News’ Ask a Lawyer, Legal Aid Alberta staff lawyer Sean Smith sheds light on the vital role duty counsel lawyers play in Canada’s justice system and why it’s important for Canadians to know their rights and how to exercise them.

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Webinar: The Vital Role of Duty Counsel in Our Justice System

Join us to learn about duty counsel services in Alberta and how duty counsel can help protect your rights.

Date: Wednesday, October 25, 2023
Time: 12 – 1 p.m.


This webinar is part of Legal Aid Alberta’s 50th Anniversary Public Education Series. Learn more about your rights and how to deal with legal challenges.

Transcript of the program:

Vinesh Pratap: Going to court can be a stressful experience for anyone. Fortunately, legal aid organizations across the country provide duty counsel lawyers free-of-charge to Canadians who need on-the-spot legal advice. Here to tell us about National Duty Counsel Day and the role these lawyers play is Legal Aid Alberta staff lawyer Sean Smith. Thank you so much for coming in.

Sean Smith: Thank you for inviting me.

Vinesh: So again, the courts are an intimidating process. Not only the building itself and the people over there and like that, just quickly – what is a duty counsel?

Sean: Basically, we protect your freedom. Everyone, when they’re arrested or detained you or anyone else, has the right to retain and instruct counsel without delay, and duty counsel are the lawyers who are there, with the boots on the ground, in the courthouse from the moment you arrive, to embody that right to counsel.

Vinesh: OK, so take us through the process. I’m charged with something, facing an offence, I go to the courts, how does the process work?

Sean: Well, for an accused, walking to the courtroom can be absolutely terrifying, because the whole process seems to be arrayed against them. For an accused walking to a courtroom, they know already the police have arrived at their door and told them they’ve been charged with a crime, and they have to appear in court, or a warrant issued for their arrest, it feels like the entire apparatus of the state is against them there. Some people just want to plead guilty to get it over with. They feel they must be guilty of something, or all this wouldn’t be happening to them, and it’s nice to have a duty counsel there to inform people of their rights and keep them from making mistakes which could affect them and their family for years to come.

Vinesh: OK, so how does it work for duty counsel? Again, I’m a bit naïve here – I’m learning as everyone else is – so I come in, do I have to be eligible for the services or how does that work?

Sean: No, absolutely not. Everyone in Canada has the right to obtain and instruct counsel. You have that right. We all have that right. It’s everyone, not just the rich, not just the powerful, every single person in Canada.

Vinesh: So that ensures that equal opportunity to justice. So, what happens if I go to court and there’s no duty counsel there? What happens?

Sean: Good Lord! Fortunately, that’s not how it works in real life. But if there were no duty counsel, the courts would be clogged. There’s absolutely not enough hours in the day for all of the court cases, all the trials and appearances that would have to happen. If there were no duty counsel, because a single unrepresented accused can take an enormous amount of time and resources, and that’s time the taxpayer would have to pay for, so we keep the process more efficient. Duty counsel is there not just to represent you, but also to keep the process moving smoothly.

Vinesh: Ensuring that smooth administration of justice, I’ve heard that phrase before. So, tell us about a day coming up, about Duty Counsel Day what’s that all about?

Sean: OK, so October 27th is National Duty Counsel Day – that is a day to raise awareness of our rights, and of the role duty counsel plays in protecting them. Duty Counsel Day actually starts two days early in Alberta, because as part of the Legal Aid Alberta’s public education series for our 50th anniversary, we’re having a public webinar. So, your viewers can log into on October 25th at noon and participate online and learn about duty counsel. Also, every single province and territory in Canada on October 27th or leading up to that date, legal aid organizations will be providing educational materials to educate the next generation in high schools. And monuments – landmarks across Canada will be lit up in red on October 27th. From the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver all the way to Niagara Falls, all the way to the Giant Fiddle in the city I was born, in Sydney, Nova Scotia.

Vinesh: OK, that’s awesome. Thank you so much Sean, and just from chatting with you here, I can tell you’re passionate about it. It really helps, especially for people who are just navigating something that just might be so foreign to them. So, thank you for coming in, thank you for educating us and educating and helping people in the future is greatly appreciated.

Sean: Thank you so much.

Vinesh: For sure. And as Sean mentioned, the free public webinar takes place on October 25 from noon to 1 p.m. You can register at

About Duty Counsel Day

October 27 is Duty Counsel Day. Initiated by Canada’s legal aid associations, this is a day to create awareness of Duty Counsel—legal aid lawyers who give free, on-the-spot legal advice in family, criminal and immigration cases for people living in Canada.

Join us and tell your fellow Canadians. The power to navigate the justice system is in your hands.

Learn more:

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