Legal Director — Legal Aid Saskatchewan (Yorkton area office)
Deanna Harris embarked on her law career after almost 10 years in the Canadian Armed Forces. Her time as a young woman in the Armed Forces gave her perspective on how marginalized communities experience injustice within Canadian institutions. As a result, she focused her legal career on criminal law, and on helping marginalized communities.
After beginning her career in private practice in Ontario and working for Legal Aid Nunavut, Deanna moved to Saskatchewan, where she has spent much of her time working in rural areas. She is now legal director at Legal Aid Saskatchewan (Yorkton area office) where she also does duty counsel work. Deanna says duty counsel has always formed one of the foundational blocks of her work in legal aid.
“Duty counsel is the first contact for someone who has been arrested,” Deanna says. “In some jurisdictions, you might be the person who is taking the phone call from the arrestee and providing legal advice before they are questioned by police. You are also the first contact when they appear in court.”
Being the first contact means gathering information about the client’s background and living situation and formulating a plan so they can be released, or setting show cause hearings where the Crown must show justifiable reasons to keep an accused in custody.
It’s the role of advocating for marginalized people’s rights that Deanna says makes duty counsel so integral to the proper functioning of the justice system in Canada.
“Bail is a Charter right that is enforced by duty counsel and it has to be pursued, zealously, by well-trained and knowledgeable counsel. Otherwise, marginalized people are overrepresented in jail. We make sure marginalized people aren’t detained without just cause. We also make sure they aren’t released with conditions which are unnecessary or too restrictive.”
Deanna is dedicated to ensuring everyone receives equal treatment in the criminal justice system, regardless of their individual characteristics or socio-economic status. She’s passionate about ensuring her clients are treated fairly by the system, aren’t unnecessarily detained, and are given release conditions they can reasonably observe.
“It might not seem like a lot, but the conditions clients are released under are important. Clients in custody will agree to any conditions to get out, but the system might be setting them up to fail by giving them unrealistic conditions that aren’t required by law,” she explains.
Part of Deanna’s role involves giving clients bad news, such as when the Crown won’t agree to release them, meaning they will have to stay in jail until a plan is developed. Since she can be the bearer of bad news, clients sometimes view her as opposing counsel. She often has to explain that she isn’t prosecuting them and will work with them to ensure their rights are protected.
“No one should be in jail unless there are absolutely no other options. A lot of people feel very alone in the justice system. We’re there to help them navigate the system and figure out release plans and next steps. We’re on their side.”