"[Carmen and Hayley] were very helpful; they treated me like a normal person and not a criminal," said a client who received criminal duty counsel services from lead duty counsel Carmen Ochitwa and her administrative legal assistant Hayley through a new pilot project at Port Coquitlam Courthouse.
“[Carmen] told me how to do things better … how to improve my situation … Nothing that was not helpful. She was fantastic, she was great,” said another.
The pilot project, which started in February 2015, is an expanded version of existing duty counsel services provided by the Legal Services Society. Criminal duty counsel are lawyers who provide brief advice services to people who are charged with a criminal offence and have to appear in court on a given day.
“It's a valuable service,” said Carmen, “but if someone has to appear in court several times, they may see several different duty counsel. Often, this means a client will have to explain his or her circumstances to several different lawyers before getting the matter resolved or set for trial, which can be frustrating for clients, and slows down the court process.”
Clients in the pilot location, however, receive continuing service from the same lawyer during early court appearances (before a trial date is fixed). Here’s what a client said about the difference between expanded duty counsel and regular services:
“In the beginning they sent me to a different person every time who kept telling me to get a lawyer. [It was] a headache and stressful, and after I met Carmen it was easy.”
Another indication of how well the project is going is the unexpectedly high volume of clients wanting to use the service. In its first year, the pilot registered 599 clients. Most of those received brief advice, after which more than half (313) were referred to other counsel and 222 were accepted for expanded services. Of those cases, 86% were resolved with the assistance of the Expanded Duty Counsel pilot project. (The other 64 people have ongoing or open case files.)
“There’s every indication that we are resolving cases with fewer court appearances before trial dates are set,” said Carmen. “Many clients who would have only received brief advice in the past are now receiving the help they need to resolve their cases.”