Legal Advisor — La Commission des services juridiques, Quebec
*Note: In Quebec, the role of avocat de garde is similar to that of duty counsel in the rest of Canada. The people who perform the role of avocat de garde are permanent lawyers hired by legal aid to assist people in the court system who require representation. Additionally, private practice lawyers can take legal aid mandates.
With a father and grandfather who were lawyers, it’s natural that Maria Choquette Stuart wound up practising law. Initially, she thought she would work in administration, but after one session in university, Maria realized administration wasn’t for her and she shifted to law.
Maria later applied for an internship to do legal aid. In 2011, she was hired in the criminal office in Montreal, where she worked until the start of 2020. Maria is now Legal Advisor for La Commission des services juridiques. Although she no longer deals with clients directly, she provides legal advice and guidance for permanent lawyers at La Commission.
“People are not aware of their rights or of how the court process takes place,” Maria says. “They get lost in the court process, so I think it’s important that lawyers are in court to direct people. We’re specialists and we know the system because we’re there every day. We guide them.”
Quebec’s legal aid act requires an avocat de garde be available 24 hours a day to answer questions for a person who has been detained. That way, if that person appears in court the next day they already have vital information. The avocate at the courthouse knows that person has already spoken to someone and they can provide followup information.
“When a person is detained, it’s urgent so we want to act quickly. We have the phone service available, but even if the person doesn’t phone the service, they can still be represented by the legal aid lawyer in the courthouse.”
Every person detained is automatically eligible for short-term legal aid representation unless that person indicates that they are not financially eligible or do not want it. If the person arrested isn’t represented, they are asked if they want to speak with the legal aid lawyer. If they’re unsure, the judge recommends legal aid. For accused persons who are not detained and who have their first appearance date, an avocat de garde is also often available.
“We can give them a short consultation and explain what’s coming next, but we don’t make representation in court after that if they don’t want it. For example, we can explain the consequences of pleading guilty and what would happen next. We can also tell the judge that the client wants a lawyer but isn’t eligible for legal aid, so hearings need to be postponed until they have representation.”
If the client wants representation long-term, the avocat de garde will verify if they are eligible for long-term legal aid. If they are eligible, legal aid can take on their file. If they aren’t eligible, they are directed to other organizations for representation and assistance.
When she was an avocat de garde, Maria loved the contact with clients and feeling that her role made a difference. She says the people she helped were happy to meet with her and often didn’t know about the resources available to them or how to determine their eligibility.
“They’re lost and sometimes they’re stressed, and we calm things down for them. We take some of the stress off because we know what we’re doing. It’s a relief for them.”