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Legal Aid provides remote help to reduce court logjams

“Our initial intent was to address the backlog as best we could. There are a lot of asks on us and we’re stretched a little thin,” said Edmonton-based Legal Aid staff lawyer Colin Laychuk.
Court St. Albert
FILE PHOTO/St. Albert Gazette

Legal Aid is stepping up its services to assist Albertans across the province prepare for court remotely by phone or email instead of making a trip to the courthouse.

This initiative, from now until Aug. 28, will temporarily help provincial courts wade through a backlog of cases that accumulated during the COVID-19 shutdown.

The courts were closed to the public from early March to July 3. During that time, most cases were routinely adjourned, creating a logjam that required a creative approach.

“Our initial intent was to address the backlog as best we could. There are a lot of asks on us and we’re stretched a little thin,” said Edmonton-based Legal Aid staff lawyer Colin Laychuk.

Through the free Legal Aid program, people now have access to an "advance appearance duty counsel" up to 14 days before a court date is set. The duty counsel can provide instructions and help fill out necessary paperwork.

Laychuk, who operated his own private criminal practice for 25 years, explained not only does this initiative relieve stress on the justice system, it also eases anxieties for individuals.

“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.”

He added the option to work with duty counsel and appear remotely is easier for people who live far away from a courthouse, and will reduce the risk of spreading viruses.

Prior to COVID-19, people without a lawyer needing assistance could visit the case management office (CMO), located in the courthouse, on their court date. Since the pandemic, CMOs have been closed to the public.

“We’re another option. We take calls to court clerks out of the equation. Court clerks are very busy at this time and duty counsels can leave a paper trail. We will initiate resolution offers and an application for disclosure. And a lawyer can plead out on the court date using WebEx.”

Throughout July, Legal Aid assisted 479 cases, of which 243 were in the Edmonton area and north. The rest were in the Calgary and southern region.

“We’ve had lots of involvement for the circuit court from outside Edmonton. People in outlying areas with transportation problems found this approach beneficial. For a five-minute court appearance, sometimes you can wait all day. In the overall scope of things, this is a good direction to take.”

Legal Aid has a limited budget and is very creative in its resource allocation.

“It’s a challenge and the key is to prioritize and come up with good strategies. There are some things we do very well and we don’t need to duplicate the private bar. We need to focus on the vulnerable in many ways.”

Anyone who needs the services of duty counsel for advance assistance can call 1-855-670-6149 Monday to Friday between 8 a.m. and noon. Assistance will be provided from 14 days prior to the first court appearance until the day before. Assistance is not provided on the day of court.


Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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