How Legal Aid Alberta is finding solutions to ensure Albertans have access to justice.
There are no upsides to a pandemic, although it has compelled our staff at Legal Aid Alberta to become even better problem solvers so we can continue helping people who need us the most.
COVID-19 has created whole new sets of challenges across the legal system – for clients, lawyers and legal staff, courthouses, and agencies that provide legal support.
LAA has remained open throughout the pandemic – working with the justice community re-imagine how services are delivered. Though our physical offices aren’t open to the public, our staff have not stopped serving Albertans, whether it’s our client services centre, staff lawyers, or duty counsel.
We have responded quickly to problems that have been made worse by COVID, such as family violence, and continue to come up with innovative solutions to challenges that never existed a year ago.
1. Safely preparing for court
Over the last several months, LAA duty counsel lawyers have helped many thousands of Albertans prepare for court remotely – a first for LAA.
Last spring, when the government closed its Case Management Offices at courthouses, LAA was able to quickly shift our processes to fill the gap and provide a safe, efficient, and temporary way for Albertans to deal with many legal matters by phone.
As a temporary service provided by LAA until the end of March 2021, Albertans can contact our lawyers by phone up to 14 days in advance to receive legal advice, assistance in requesting disclosure, and Duty Counsel may appear on behalf of a self-represented litigant for the scheduled court appearance.
2. Virtual court appearances
At this time last year, the possibility of appearing in court virtually was barely on the radar. To prevent the spread of COVID, Alberta Courts responded quickly to set up Webex in many docket courtrooms, which means LAA lawyers can appear in court virtually to conduct some hearings for clients such as adjournments, bail hearings, and pre-trial conferences.
In many cases, what used to be an unavoidable trip to court for our lawyers, their clients, and courtroom staff, can now be done over the phone or online.
3. Lawyer-client relationships that are entirely digital
LAA immigration lawyer Ruth Williams represents people making refugee claims or facing removal from Canada. Before COVID, her office was filled with clients from all over the world.
“The work that we do is so hands-on,” says Williams. “A lot of these people come from dysfunctional countries and have a significant amount of trauma. We intimately know each and every client.”
During COVID, establishing a trusting relationship with a refugee means relying on video and phone calls. It has been an adjustment for Williams and her clients.
“I’m used to my clients dropping in, meeting each other face to face. Now, I spend extra time on the phone and video calls getting people to trust me, making them feel comfortable communicating online.”
4. Unusual court cases
LAA lawyers and staff work every day with Alberta’s most vulnerable populations, helping them deal with a range of complex legal issues. Some unusual cases come up from time to time because of COVID.
In one case, an elderly man applied for an emergency protection order from a young person in the household who wasn’t following health guidelines and allowed a COVID-positive friend into the house.
5. Child custody
Child custody during COVID has caused some confusion and legal conflict for Alberta parents.
LAA family lawyers are encouraged to see many parents coming up with creative visitation plans during the pandemic that both sides can agree on. However, there have been incidents of parents trying to use isolation to keep a child from another parent.
“Parents are expected to follow court orders and government health guidelines,” says LAA family lawyer Jessica Chapman.
6. Growing concern about family violence
Changes to schedules – with people working less or not at all, or being home more often – has been cited by many LAA clients as an exacerbating factor in the violence and conflict happening at home during COVID.
In response to growing demand for emergency protection orders, LAA has sent extra support to the justice system frontlines to assist victims of abuse.
There’s an appetite in Alberta to know more about family violence and how to help. Nearly 300 people attended LAA’s first ever public webinar to learn from lawyers how an emergency protection order can help someone in a dangerous domestic situation.