More than 1,700 students in schools across Canada are learning about Duty Counsel Day, their legal rights, and the justice system.
This week, junior and senior high school students across Canada are learning about their legal rights and how front-line lawyers called duty counsel protect Canadians and keep the justice system functioning.
More than 1,700 students and teachers from nearly every province and territory will participate in Duty Counsel Day in the Classroom on October 27, learning about the vital role of duty counsel, whose job is to provide free, on-the-spot legal advice in criminal and family court cases.
Classrooms will be transformed into mini courtrooms for students to role-play a typical day in docket court. Hands-on lessons have been customized to the high school curriculum in each province and territory, helping teachers plan and meet their learning objectives.
Duty counsel services are delivered by legal aid lawyers in courtrooms across Canada. It is estimated that duty counsel handles 1.2 million legal assists every year. Without duty counsel, courts would be clogged with people with little to no knowledge of the law or justice system representing themselves.
In addition to providing teachers with a mock courtroom scenario that can be played out in the classroom, schools can invite duty counsel to speak to their students.
Educators know this is important information for young Canadians.
“Legal rights are part of Alberta’s Grade 9 Social Studies curriculum. My students are very curious about how the system works, especially duty counsel,” said one Alberta teacher participating in the program.
“It’s wonderful to have experts available to satisfy their curiosity with accurate information and first-hand knowledge.”
Students are learning why duty counsel matters, how to access it, and what working as a frontline lawyer is like.
Sean Smith, a Legal Aid Alberta staff lawyer, says his role as duty counsel is “incredibly rewarding” because for many people, coming to court can be a “terrifying” experience.
“For an accused person walking to a courtroom, the police may 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 will be issued for their arrest,” said Smith. “So, it can feel like the entire apparatus of the state is against them.
“Some people just want to plead guilty to get it over with. They feel they must be guilty of something, and it’s nice to have a duty counsel there to inform them of their rights and keep them from making mistakes which could affect them and their family for years to come.”
Everyone in Canada who has been arrested or detained has the right to retain and instruct counsel without delay and the job of duty counsel, Smith adds, is to “protect your freedom,” Smith adds.
“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.”
In a video message to students and teachers, Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Richard Wagner explains that one of his priorities as chief justice is to encourage people to learn more about our courts and justice system. And he puts the vital service of duty counsel into perspective.
“Just as emergency doctors and nurses are prepared to deal with critical medical problems, duty counsel have the expertise to handle urgent legal problems,” he says.
“Duty counsel help individuals understand their rights, and treat everyone with dignity. Their contributions to our justice system deserve recognition.”
To help build awareness of duty counsel and Duty Counsel Day, landmarks across the country will be lit in red on Oct. 27, including Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, the CN Tower, Niagara Falls, and Nova Scotia’s Big Fiddle.
Duty Counsel Day was initiated by the Association of Legal Aid Plans of Canada in 2021 and proclaimed in the Canadian Senate by the Honourable Patti LaBoucane-Benson.
Teachers across Canada can register for a free teaching kit. The lesson library includes a direct tie to each province and territory’s curriculum, videos, discussion questions, and a “Day at the Courthouse” mock court exercise.
A summary of duty counsel services by province/territory.