Canada's first-ever Duty Counsel Day celebrated the backbone of access to justice

Anyone can end up in court, and it's time we celebrate those who are there to help

Karen Wilford

Imagine waking up in an alternate universe — a place where everyone speaks your language — but nothing is quite understandable. Everyone around you has a bizarrely formal way of doing things, and you can’t tell whether to sit or stand or even in what part of the room you should be. Now imagine trying to do something important in that room that affects your future liberty.

You do not have to travel very far to this alternate universe. Just go to any courthouse in Canada.

No one wants to be in court, but any of us could end up there. You can bet anyone in that situation is scared, uncertain and stressed. Even frightened and anxious. No one should have to make important decisions about their rights in that state of mind and alone.

Fortunately, in Canada, people who need legal advice can turn to one of the most important and least-known essential services we have: duty counsel. It’s just another thing to be proud of in our country. Duty counsel represent people who don’t have a lawyer in the initial stages of the justice system: first appearances before a judge, bail hearings, child custody matters, mental health courts and much more. Every province and territory in Canada has a duty counsel program. It’s universal, and it is the backbone of access to justice.

As a lawyer, I’m aware our profession attracts more than its fair share of jokes. That’s ok — we have broad shoulders. We do this work because of what is in our hearts — the conviction that justice should be available to all, always.

That’s where duty counsel comes in. Duty counsel are lawyers with a passion for social justice — dedicated, capable and prepared to go the extra mile. They are the lawyers who wait with the anxious parent in family court. They take the time to explain the charges in criminal court and connect people with important services such as interpretation, counselling or mediation. They are the front-line lawyers who defuse a tense or confused situation with calm information. They are lawyers whose priority is the well-being of their clients.

It is estimated that duty counsel provide free legal help to Canadians 1.2 million times a year from coast to coast to coast. There are hundreds of duty counsel in court across Canada at this very moment — standing up for people who are unable to do so for themselves. From downtown to small town to tundra, they are making sure that things are fair.

Last week, on Oct. 27, Canada’s legal aid plans helped organize the first-ever Duty Counsel Day. There was a declaration in the Senate of Canada. Major landmarks across the country, including Niagara Falls, the CN Tower in Toronto, the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver, Halifax City Hall and the High Level Bridge in Edmonton, were lit up. It was a day to be grateful for a country that values justice and fairness for everyone. It was a day to express our gratitude for those lawyers in court, who are there for us in times of trouble and vulnerability.

As a country, we agree there are fundamental rights that should be protected, like the right to have legal advice. Duty counsel are the biggest part of that protection.

Something that important — that Canadian — deserves to be not just known and acknowledged but also celebrated. And that is why we gave duty counsel a day.

Canadians believe that people should understand their rights, and they think that people should make important decisions affecting themselves and their families with the best possible information and advice. In times of crisis, no one should be alone.  People should be able to get advice, have someone to advocate for them, and help refer them to needed services.

Helping those in need is as Canadian as universal health care. That’s the kind of service that duty counsel provide.

In every part of Canada, dedicated duty counsel have been known to drive someone to court, hold a fussy baby, make countless three-way calls so that a client can speak to their family, shop at the Thrift Store for a decent suit for court for a client and always have a supply of granola bars in their briefcase. Duty counsel are there when you need them most, and they will be the last ones to sing their praises. That’s why they deserve a day.

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