Andre Rivard: Helping people get a fair day in court

Criminal Duty Counsel —  Legal Aid Ontario (Brampton Court)

Andre Rivard has served as duty counsel at the courthouse in Brampton, Ontario since 2014, but his roots in community service go back to his childhood. His parents instilled in him the importance of serving the community and supporting vulnerable people.

After earning degrees in psychology and social work, Andre worked for a community agency helping temporary foreign workers, such as live-in caregivers and seasonal farm workers. It was there where he developed his love of community and helping people who are struggling in the justice system.

“I still see myself as a social worker,” Andre says. “I view the conversation and interview process with clients through the lens of a social worker. Examining a legal problem demands a holistic approach, including the client’s lived experience, mental health, possible addiction issues, as well as an understanding of the systems in place that may reinforce their oppression.”

Andre also formed an appreciation for the law as a tool for social change. He observed clients facing legal injustices, but at the time did not have the professional qualifications to accompany them in judicial settings. This inspired him to pursue his law degree, which provided the perfect intersection of community work and the law.

As duty counsel, Andre’s role is to provide legal information and advice so self-represented clients who can’t afford legal fees can make informed decisions. Andre represents clients at their bail hearings, advises them on their legal issues in defence of their criminal charges, assists those who want to plead guilty, answers their questions, and makes recommendations on appropriate sentencing.

“The protection of one’s fundamental rights is the most important service a defence lawyer can offer,” he explains. “It can be a scary experience for an accused person to go to court feeling like they don’t have the tools to help oneself. Being found guilty has consequences so it’s important that those individuals have access to dedicated, capable counsel who are qualified and can put their rights first.”

Duty counsel serves a vital role in ensuring that every client who goes to court has a real chance, has their rights respected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and has the right to make their own informed decisions during their interactions with the justice system.

Andre’s contributions involve assisting clients in various courts throughout the week, moving between youth court, domestic violence, and treatment court. He regards it a privilege to have the opportunity to connect with people, learn about their home life, and approach their legal interactions through the lens of social justice advocacy. His view is that being accused of a criminal offence can sometimes serve as a catalyst to encourage substantial change in people’s lives.

“The responsibility that comes along with being a criminal defence lawyer is the most fulfilling work in law,” Andre says. “It is intense and can be gritty. If I can assist a client in asserting their rights and help achieve a fair day in court, I have done a meaningful thing. There is nothing more exhilarating than that. There is a lot at stake, but it is so rewarding.

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