By: Legal Aid Alberta
Right now, 35,000 Albertans in 75 communities are receiving legal aid assistance and demand never stops. People depending on legal aid face extremely challenging life circumstances such as mental health issues, past trauma and addiction. On average, our clients earn less than $10,000 a year. Many are stuck in a cycle.
Legal Aid Alberta plays an essential frontline role in the province’s three therapeutic courts, supporting fairness in the criminal justice system and providing alternative pathways out of the system.
Drug Treatment Court: “It’s never too late”
Too often, people are led to crime to feed their addictions. Drug Treatment Courts are making a difference by guiding people to take on the difficult challenge of changing their lives.
Alberta has six drug treatment courts. As of 2018, more than 70 per cent of graduates from the Edmonton and Calgary programs alone have made radical changes to their lives and have had no new criminal convictions since completing their programs.
“It’s never too late for redemption. It’s never too late to make transformative changes in your life,” said Brett Carlson, a Legal Aid Alberta staff duty counsel lawyer who represents participants at the Lethbridge Drug Treatment Court. “All it takes is an opportunity.”
Mental Health Court: “A Safe Place”
While it is the first of its kind in Alberta, Edmonton’s Mental Health Court is modeled after other longstanding mental health courts in different parts of the country.
There have been countless stories of success since the start of the court. People arrive to the court traumatized, distrustful of the system, struggling to manage their mental health – and leave with more resources, little to no further allegations of re-offending, and with a more positive outlook.
The court hears information and expertise from social workers, psychiatrists and nurses, as well as designated judges, prosecutors, and Legal Aid Alberta staff duty counsel. There are no trials.
Indigenous Courts: “We need to try new things”
Indigenous courts are specialized courts that focus on healing individuals impacted by the trauma of colonization practices like residential schools and addressing the over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.
The newly established Edmonton Indigenous Court is the fourth in Alberta. Others operate in Calgary and on the Siksika Nation and the Tsuut’ina Nation. There are about 30 such courts operating across Canada.
“People come before the criminal justice system because they are broken,” said LAA senior staff lawyer Tania Sarkar. “The number of Indigenous people who are incarcerated increases year after year, and we are interested in being part of the solution. We need to try new things.”
People identifying as Indigenous, Inuit or Metis who are facing non-serious criminal charges can participate in Indigenous court. The courts deal only with guilty pleas and bail hearings. They focus on healing, connecting the accused with elders and other cultural supports, and finding alternatives to incarceration to help restore the person to society.
Duty counsel in specialty courts
Across Alberta, legal aid duty counsel lawyers play a crucial role in specialty therapeutic courts. They are capable, compassionate, and cost-free.
October 27 is Duty Counsel Day. Initiated by Canada’s 13 legal aid associations, this is a day to create awareness of duty counsel’s role protecting our fundamental legal rights.