Child Welfare and Family Duty Counsel — Legal Aid Alberta
Sara Peacock started her law career with the goal of helping people with legal problems. She was in private practice, focussing on family matters until she retired, but early in her career Sara worked occasionally as duty counsel in the criminal courts. Four years after retiring, she returned to work and felt duty counsel in family and child welfare was a good fit.
“With duty counsel work, you’re dealing with a number of people and situations where you need broad knowledge and experience, which I had,” she says. “Early on, I had done a fair amount of child welfare work and chaired the Child Welfare Appeal Panel. It seemed like an ideal position for me.”
As duty counsel, Sara assists unrepresented litigants in speaking to matters before docket court. She interviews them, identifies the purpose of their application, and explains the process to them. If appropriate, she gives general legal advice, but notes that she never has a privileged solicitor/client relationship with them. She then assists clients in speaking in court. In the child welfare arena, her role also involves assisting clients in accessing legal aid resources.
At the Edmonton courthouse, the child welfare docket court is scheduled four mornings per week and family court occurs three afternoons weekly.
“Docket court isn’t a hearing: there isn’t a trial. The judge can’t make a major decision. There’s limited time for any particular matter, so we have to explain what will happen to the individuals and move them into the next step of the process.”
Duty counsel in family court often assist both sides, and in that situation, Sara can’t advocate for either party. She must present both parties’ information in a neutral manner. Each side then has the opportunity to speak to the matter before the court. If she speaks with only one party, she can fill more of an advocacy role.
Sara says part of her responsibility is educating people about the law.
“The court system is intimidating and complex, and involves a set of rules that are different from day-to-day living,” she explains. “There are a number of myths out there about legal rights and entitlements, particularly about family law. It’s important for people to have an opportunity to speak with someone knowledgeable regarding legal information and court processes.”
Sara loves that duty counsel work is fast-paced and allows her to assist a large number of people who are dealing with an often confusing system. Sometimes, she can broker an agreement or negotiate a consent, which helps clients avoid a trial.
“It’s always interesting, and it’s always an adventure,” she says. “You meet all kinds of different people. It’s challenging in many ways, but it’s also an area where we can provide the most assistance to people coming into the court system.”