General Counsel — New Brunswick Legal Aid Services Commission
Martin Goguen developed a love for law while watching films that included court trials. He also knew a few people who went to law school, so he decided to join them. But Martin, who later opened his own firm, soon learned that the practice of law is different from what he saw in movies or classrooms.
“Law school is mostly theoretical,” he says. “I had no idea how to practise when I was finished. I did internships, opened my own firm and figured it out.”
Martin’s first experience with duty counsel was during a one-year internship at a law firm. He fell in love with duty counsel work immediately, especially the quick pace and excitement it offered. He also liked being able to help people. When an opportunity for a permanent position with New Brunswick Legal Aid arose, he took it.
Martin helps people who show up to court with no lawyer by explaining their options at the date of their first appearance. After the first appearance, his relationship with the client ends, as there is no follow-up requirement.
“It’s an opt-in program,” he explains. “The client can, at all times, refuse our services and choose to represent themselves. Usually, you get instructions from a willing participant and relate those instructions to the judge or to the court. You’re an advocate or an intermediary.”
Most of the people Martin sees are nervous and generally unprepared for their first time in court. They are unfamiliar with the criminal justice system and don’t know their options or what is expected of them. Martin says an important part of duty counsel is speeding up the criminal justice process.
“It can be time-consuming for the judge and prosecutor to explain all the options to self-represented litigants. We can do that ahead of time, so the court appearance flows better. It assists the judicial system in getting things moving.”
Martin says duty counsel also plays an important role in preventing wrongful convictions. While judges help to ensure rights are protected, duty counsel provide an essential service in ensuring the accused knows and understands their rights. They can also ensure the court has essential information about their clients, such as whether a suggested outcome would create undue hardship.
“We’re mostly there for due process and to ease the concerns people have when they’re nervous about their first appearance. We function almost like a psychologist. The person is in a difficult position when they’re charged with a criminal offence. We make sure their rights are respected.”
People are generally relieved to learn they have help from duty counsel while navigating the criminal justice system, according to Martin.
“I’ve had overwhelmingly positive responses from clients. You get the rare litigant you can’t please. Some people want to represent themselves and that’s their right, but usually the willing participants are satisfied.”