LAA duty counsel team steps in this summer to help provide critical services to rural and urban communities during COVID-19
Whether they’re in Edmonton, Calgary, Fort McMurray or Drumheller, Albertans have access to Advance Appearance Duty Counsel from now until Aug. 28, allowing them to prepare for court by phone or e-mail instead of making a trip to the courthouse in person. This new approach, launched by Legal Aid Alberta (LAA) to temporarily help the provincial courts amid COVID-19, has served hundreds of people since it started on July 3 in response to Alberta courts re-opening this month.
“With Advance Appearance Duty Counsel, people can contact our duty counsel up to 14 days in advance, before their court date itself, and we can help them,” says Edmonton-based Legal Aid Alberta staff lawyer Colin Laychuk. “Navigating the courts can be scary, but we can help them get their case started, provide legal advice and information, request disclosure on their behalf, and connect them with legal aid or a lawyer referral service if they’re unrepresented.”
Before COVID-19, people needing to request disclosure or seek other help could visit a Case Management Office (CMO) desk on their court date, if the CMO desk was available in the courthouse in their area. Due to the pandemic response, CMO desks currently offer limited service, primarily by phone and e-mail. To help Alberta courts manage the backlog, Legal Aid Alberta duty counsel lawyers are temporarily taking calls from people all over the province and can offer many of the same services. This helps reduce delays in the justice system by helping people prepare for court in advance, often eliminating the need for an adjournment at their first appearance.
While it has meant a lot of work for the LAA duty counsel team, this new initiative has an important role to play in serving Albertans and providing access to justice during the pandemic. Reducing the number of trips that need to be made to court, and helping people prepare in advance of the court date itself, benefits everyone involved.
“I’ve often helped clients for whom a trip to the courthouse was a challenge, since they had to walk to the city from a rural area,” says Marino Eliopoulos, a Calgary staff lawyer with Legal Aid Alberta. “Having the 14-day window to prepare in advance, and remotely, is a substantial improvement to their access to justice.”
While an in-person visit will be necessary for most clients at some point during the process, Legal Aid Alberta is interacting with the justice system more extensively by phone and e-mail than ever during the pandemic, streamlining the process still further.
“Not only is it preferable for clients to stay home because of COVID-19, it improves access to the system for people who would otherwise have trouble getting to the courthouse,” notes Laychuk. “Having the option of dealing with legal matters up to 14 days in advance also offers peace of mind to anyone with a court date looming.”
Assistant Chief Provincial Court Judge Ray Bodnarek agrees: “The Provincial Court of Alberta is grateful to Legal Aid Alberta for providing enhanced supports to self–represented individuals during this time to help address the challenges associated with ensuring access to justice for Albertans during the pandemic response.”
Eliopoulos and Laychuk have received positive feedback on the Advance Appearance Duty Counsel initiative from the judiciary as well as the Crown. While it is still too early to measure the exact effect of these new ideas on the justice system, the efficiency that they bring has been welcomed from all sides.
“This has been a good test run for the future, in terms of how we handle the delivery of these services,” says Laychuk. “It is a temporary initiative, but we are proud of our duty counsel team stepping up over the summer and we continue to work together with the courts to find solutions to better serve Albertans.”
Legal Aid Alberta continues to work with the courts and partners to reimagine processes and innovation in order to serve more Albertans and help them navigate the justice system. For more information on Advance Appearance Duty Counsel, visit the Alberta Courts website.