By: Legal Aid Alberta
Courts in Alberta are considered closed, but what does that mean for those seeking justice and legal help? During wave after wave of COVID-19, the need for access to justice has remained constant.
“Domestic violence didn’t go away on lockdown,” says Legal Aid Alberta (LAA) President and CEO John Panusa, noting that people still need legal assistance – pandemic or not.
“What happens to vulnerable people who urgently need help but can’t afford it? They come to Legal Aid Alberta.”
As public health restrictions continue, LAA has continued providing services throughout the pandemic.
“Even with the fourth wave and restrictions, LAA is continuing to provide essential, front-line legal services across the province.”
Panusa says there are still many Albertans in need, including those facing legal matters in family law, domestic violence, child welfare, immigration, and youth and adult criminal law.
“People who are in police custody and presumed innocent are vulnerable too. They risk losing their jobs or missing child support payments. Legal Aid lawyers are still conducting bail hearings — more than 28,000 during the last year — virtually and by phone 16 hours a day, seven days a week,” Panusa says.
Unfamiliar to many Albertans, LAA duty counsel lawyers for family, and adult and youth criminal matters — the first lawyers many people will speak to — have remained on the frontlines of the justice system through the entirety of the Pandemic. LAA DC lawyers have continued to provide in-person services with protected interview protocols, PPE and courtroom capacity limits at courthouses across the province where court directives have allowed in person attendance by counsel. During those periods where we were required to provide remote or virtual services, LAA DC lawyers adapted and were able to support Albertans at this crucial stage of their proceeding remotely.
Since May, and in accordance with current Courthouse directives, LAA Duty Counsel are appearing in court virtually, other than for certain specialty courts, such as Mental Health Court and Drug Treatment Courts.
The stakes are often high for those seeking access to justice.
“Victims of domestic violence come to us seeking protection from their abusers, fearing for their lives and the safety of their children,” says Panusa, adding that virtual court appearances in these highly charged cases are often easier on clients who are afraid to face their abusers in person. During the pandemic, LAA saw an eight per-cent increase in Emergency Protection Orders, a service that provides immediate protection from family violence.
Like many essential service workers, LAA’s team of lawyers continue to work on the frontlines of the justice system during this difficult time, serving Albertans at all hours of the day, virtually and face-to-face.
Innovations such as Early Appearance Assistance, ensure access to justice and reduce the number of court appearances for an accused person.
LAA services have never stopped, in person and virtual: