It's challenging to recruit lawyers outside of major urban centres. LAA is making a difference with a new full-time lawyer in Grande Prairie.
Legal Aid Alberta is improving access to justice for rural Albertans with a new full-time staff lawyer in Grande Prairie—the first in many years.
Full-time LAA presence in Grande Prairie began March 1, helping meet demand for duty counsel services in the region. In the same way that recruiting full-time physicians in rural Alberta is tougher than in metropolitan areas, the same applies for lawyers, including duty counsel.
“LAA is committed to providing timely legal services to all Albertans,” said senior LAA lawyer Andrew Holko. “By establishing a full-time presence, we’re providing operating continuity and supporting more vulnerable Albertans.”
Holko will be working in Grande Prairie as a duty counsel Lawyer and as mentor to LAA duty counsel lawyer DJ Janjua. LAA lawyer Paul Welke will also share duty counsel responsibilities, but Janjua will ultimately serve as LAA’s first permanent Grande Prairie duty counsel staff member.
Holko says the traditional role of duty counsel is a specialty—similar to emergency medicine as a discipline for doctors.
“Duty counsel often requires a diagnostic approach in assessing a person’s legal needs on their day of court, to determine the next step in the proceedings and the best way their matters can be addressed,” said Holko.
Video: Legal Aid Alberta expanding services in rural centre of Grande Prairie
Duty counsel is available to everyone in Alberta—regardless of financial circumstances—and provided by LAA. Duty counsel lawyers provide legal advice and direction on the day of first appearance in court. If required, duty counsel will represent individuals being held in custody, to assist them in speaking to their release (or bail, as it is commonly known).
Duty counsel also assists in resolving a matter if it is appropriate to do so by way of summary disposition, diversion or speaking to the Crown prosecutor on the person’s behalf. Duty counsel also serve in youth and family matters.
“Courts appreciate having a permanent duty counsel lawyer providing effective services,” Holko said. “Having the same person there week in and week out means you gain a better understanding about the procedures and operations of court staff, Crown, judiciary, sheriffs, and probation. One can use past experiences to make suggestions and adjustments when protocols change, such as we have experienced this past year.”
“Focusing on addictions and mental health issues, alternative dispute resolution and other available resources will decrease the chances of recidivism, decrease court appearances, and lessen the burden on our judicial system.”
It also means, over time, that duty counsel is able to identify the concerns of a particular accused. “Focusing on addictions and mental health issues, alternative dispute resolution and other available resources will decrease the chances of recidivism, decrease court appearances, and lessen the burden on our judicial system.”
While lawyers in Grande Prairie who belong to LAA’s province-wide roster of 1,200 lawyers are continuing to serve LAA clients in the region, including some duty counsel duties, it is not always easy to find someone to fill duty counsel duties in the region. Oftentimes, a Legal Aid Alberta duty counsel lawyer from Edmonton must travel to Grande Prairie.
Janjua is excited to support the criminal and family court dockets and, potentially, a Drug Treatment Court.
Born and raised in Edmonton, Janjua earned his law degree at the University of Victoria, B.C. He articled with LAA in Calgary and was called to the bar in 2020. He’s looking forward to taking up residency in Grande Prairie.
“I want to see another side of the province,” Janjua said. “It’s a great opportunity to learn about a new region and to develop a deep sense of the community.”