Expanded legal aid service helps resolve criminal cases quickly
Continuity of service for legal aid clients dealing with criminal law matters and earlier resolution of disputes are the goals of a new pilot project announced recently by Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Suzanne Anton.
The Expanded Criminal Duty Counsel (ECDC) – provided by the Legal Services Society (LSS) – serves legal aid clients at the Port Coquitlam courthouse who are dealing with a criminal law matter.
“The expanded criminal duty counsel will give low-income British Columbians increased access to criminal legal aid services which are focused on resolving cases before the trial date is set,” Anton said.
“Clients will have the benefit of using the same lawyer throughout the process, resulting in better service and resolution of their legal matter as quickly as possible.”
Prior to this pilot, clients received legal advice from a different lawyer every time they went to court. The focus of the new pilot is on continuity of service from the same lawyer throughout, with the goal of achieving early resolution of cases where possible.
The pilot lawyer provides one-on-one service to ensure clients understand the court process and the options available to them. A lawyer provides advice and information about charges, evidence, disclosure, liaises with Crown counsel, and attends court if a guilty plea is appropriate to resolve the case.
“The expanded criminal duty counsel program at the Port Coquitlam courthouse will increase access to criminal legal aid services for eligible clients,” said Tom Christensen, chair of the Legal Services Society.
“The expanded services of a specific duty counsel will assist clients to quickly resolve less complicated legal matters. The program’s focus on achieving earlier resolution means fewer court appearances and will contribute to court efficiency.”
The ECDC is funded by the Ministry of Justice and is the last of five legal aid justice transformation pilot projects created to improve access and outcomes within the criminal and family justice system.
The ministry is providing LSS with $2 million annually for three years for this purpose, starting in 2014-15, bringing government’s total funding commitment to $74.6 million in 2015-16.
These new projects provide low-income British Columbians with increased access to legal information and advice to help them resolve their legal problems as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The Port Coquitlam courthouse was selected as the pilot location due to the volume of anticipated cases, the number of initial appearance days and availability and suitability of space.
The pilot project will continue until Mar. 31, 2017. LSS is monitoring pilot volumes to determine whether to further increase services in Port Coquitlam or open a second pilot location in fall 2015.
“The Expanded Duty Counsel project is designed to provide more legal services to a larger group of people while reducing the number of court appearances required to get the matter decided,” said Carmen Ochitwa, Port Coquitlam criminal duty counsel.
“Early resolution of uncomplicated cases reduces both the stress on the court system and our clients. It allows those matters that require a full hearing or trial to be more efficiently scheduled into the court time available.”
The LSS provides legal aid services free of charge to people who qualify, based on specific criteria such as income and type of legal issue.
To receive ECDC services, applicants must have:
- Income and assets that fall within a qualifying range; and
- A case that can be resolved before a trial date is set based on factors such as the complexity of the case and the volume of disclosure.