On the front lines with adult criminal duty counsel

“It’s fantastically rewarding work. You’re dealing with people, often at their first court appearance, who are frightened and uncertain and don’t fully understand the situation."

Communications and Public Relations
July 27, 2021

When an accused person attends court before securing a lawyer to represent them, they are usually confused and overwhelmed by our complex and adversarial court system. LAA provides duty counsel services in adult criminal docket courts across the province in an effort to level the playing field, ensure due process, and support fairness in the justice system. Each day, LAA duty counsel lawyers are present in criminal docket courtrooms to inform, advise, and represent dozens of unrepresented Albertans. They provide essential, front-line services even in the face of the pandemic.

When an accused person attends court without a lawyer and needs legal support, our adult criminal duty counsel lawyers will:

  • Interview them, finding out their circumstances and goals.
  • Explain the system and their options within it.
  • Advise them on what course(s) of action will most likely get them closest to their goals.
  • Negotiate with the Crown toward the best or most fair outcome.
  • Conduct their court appearance on record before the judge or justice, including guilty pleas.
  • Present legal argument on their behalf in sentence hearings.
  • Give them information they need for their next court date, including a to-do list and contact details for appropriate agencies.
  • Record statistics about all the matters we have helped people with.
  • Pass information on, if necessary, to the appropriate people concerning what happened in court.

Exterior view of the Calgary Court Centre.

The pandemic has brought major changes in the criminal justice system, most notably virtual appearances. Virtual proceedings allow lawyers to represent clients in courts separated by hundreds of kilometres, in the same day.

“We’re seeing a massive acceleration of trends like virtual appearances that are becoming entrenched and very well could become permanent,” says Brett Carlson, an adult criminal duty counsel lawyer based in Lethbridge. “How will you persuade lawyers to appear in person 300 kilometres away when they can appear virtually?”

Pandemic-driven public health measures add layers of safety and complexity, but the heart of the job remains the same. “It’s fantastically rewarding work,” says Carlson. “You’re dealing with people, often at their first court appearance, who are frightened and uncertain and don’t fully understand the situation. We alleviate all of their concerns. You come in scared and leave knowledgeable and purposeful, with an objective and an achievable plan.

This story is featured in LAA’s 2020-21 Annual Report (PDF)

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