October 24th, 2020

Legal Aid initiative to help people navigate courts


By Shurtz, Delon on July 31, 2020.

Delon Shurtz

lethbridge herald

dshurtz@lethbridgeherald.com

Navigating an often complicated court system can be challenging and sometimes daunting at the best of times, and restrictions implemented because of COVID-19 aren’t making things any easier.

However, an initiative implemented nearly a month ago is helping people deal with their criminal court matters without attending court or even meeting someone face to face.

The initiative by Legal Aid Alberta (LAA) enables Albertans to contact a duty counsel lawyer for assistance up to 14 days before a scheduled court date.

“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,” Colin Laychuk, Legal Aid staff lawyer, says in a news release.

Although the initiative is only temporary and may only be provided until Aug. 28, it has already benefited hundreds of people since it was introduced July 3.

“People have been using it,” says Rob Curtis, senior communications officer with Legal Aid. “It’s been well-received.”

Before COVID-19, people who needed disclosure about their case or other help could visit a Case Management Office desk on their court date or find the duty counsel lawyer for some face-to-face advice. The pandemic changed that, however, and CMO desks currently offer only limited service, primarily by phone and email, and people are discouraged from attending the courthouse.

“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,” Laychuk says.

While an in-person visit will be necessary for most clients sometime during the process, Legal Aid is interacting extensively with the justice system by phone and email during the pandemic, which streamlines the process and keeps court attendance to a minimum.

“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,” Laychuk adds. “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.”

People who want to be connected with a duty counsel lawyer can call 1-855-670-6149. Curtis says email contact is not available for initial contact, but they may be able to communicate by email later in the process. He also warns callers duty counsel will not be able to assist them if they call the day of their court appearance. The latest they can call is the day before, but even earlier is preferred.

For more information on court matters and protocols, visit https://albertacourts.ca/pc/resources/covid/covid-19-criminal-and-youth-criminal-matters/CMO.

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