Duty Counsel: First Line of Defence

Regardless of your income, LAA duty counsel are on the spot in provincial docket courts in Alberta to help you make informed decisions

Legal Aid AB
October 20, 2023

Legal trouble doesn’t discriminate. Anyone can suddenly find themselves in a courtroom wondering what to say or do next. Without understanding the law and court procedures, you’re at a definite disadvantage.

That’s where lawyers called duty counsel enter the picture. Duty counsel deliver on-the-spot information and legal advice – free of charge. They give you clarity, so you can make informed decisions about your next steps. Legal Aid Alberta duty counsel represent Albertans all across the province – from big cities to small towns.

LAA staff duty counsel like Sara Peacock and Bobbi Jo Hennigar serve on the front lines of the justice system. In the Edmonton courthouse, Peacock focuses on child welfare and family law. As Legal Aid Alberta’s staff duty counsel in Fort McMurray, Hennigar is responsible for providing legal support for adult and youth criminal matters, as well as in Drug Treatment Court.

Hennigar is also LAA’s duty counsel in the community of Fort Chipewyan, home of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, located 300 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. The remote, largely Indigenous community of 800 is accessible via a 45-minute flight from Fort McMurray or, during the winter, an hours-long drive that includes crossing an ice highway across a frozen lake. Once a month, Hennigar joins a judge, prosecutor and court clerks to travel to the remote community and hold court.

“Duty counsel, especially in remote and rural areas, can be the only point of access a person has to legal aid,” says Hennigar. “I can help people who have no other way to access to the justice system.”

Hennigar uses LAA’s new Client Gateway service to help people apply for support from LAA without having to all. The Gateway enables people who have no access to phones to connect with LAA by providing their information to duty counsel or community agencies whose mandates include access to justice. Their information is fed directly to LAA’s Contact Centre team so the application can be processed as usual. “Before we had the Gateway, I’d sit on hold with people who didn’t have a phone until they could get through. The Gateway makes it easier, and that is one less person calling into the main number.”

Back at the Edmonton courthouse, Peacock takes on duty counsel service in the child welfare docket court four mornings per week, and in family court three afternoons a week.

“Docket court isn’t a hearing: there isn’t a trial. The judge can’t make a major decision. There’s limited time for any particular matter, so we have to explain what will happen to the individuals and move them into the next step of the process.”

Peacock says part of her responsibility is educating people about the law. “The court system is intimidating and complex and involves a set of rules that are different from day-to-day living,” she explains. “There are a number of myths out there about legal rights and entitlements, particularly about family law. It’s important for people to have an opportunity to speak with someone knowledgeable regarding legal information and court processes.” Duty counsel work is fast-paced and allows her to assist a large number of people who are dealing with an often-confusing system. “It’s always interesting, and it’s always an adventure,” she says.

“You meet all kinds of different people. It’s challenging in many ways, but it’s also an area where we can provide the most assistance to people coming into the court system.”

This story is featured in the Legal Aid Alberta 2022-23 Annual Report.

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