Legal Aid, Courtworker, and Public Legal Education and Information Needs in the Northwest Territories
From one perspective it can be stated that the Legal Services Board has done an admirable job, despite severely constrained resources, of meeting basic legal needs in the NWT. It provides legal services to citizens in 32 communities, widely dispersed across an enormous territory, through a mix of legal aid staff lawyers, private lawyers on contract or on a tariff basis, Courtworkers, and the Law Line. The Beaufort/ Delta clinic provides considerably greater access for northern clients, and the system of presumed eligibility ensures at least front-end assistance for almost any citizen in the territory facing criminal charges.
From another perspective, the legal aid system is in crisis. The main fault lines are most evident in three areas. On the civil side, there is an eight-month backlog of family cases and a serious lack of private lawyers willing or able to take family cases. On the criminal side, there are major pressures on Courtworkers to do in-court work in an increasingly active JP Court system; a division of opinion within the legal profession as to whether Courtworkers can or should undertake this work; and the need for a major and sustained training initiative. The LSB has also been unable to devote the time and resources to mount significant PLEI outreach activities beyond limited (but helpful) Law Line service two evenings per week.
These three areas have particular impacts both for women and Aboriginal persons. Women tend to comprise a higher proportion of family cases and, as seen in Section 9.1, of Law Line callers. To the extent that JP courts are a mechanism for accessing smaller communities, the quality of justice in these courts most directly impacts the lives of Aboriginals, because they form the majority of the population in these communities. By the same rationale, pressures limiting time that can be spent with clients in the smaller communities served by circuit courts primarily impact Aboriginal clients. Similarly, the vast majority of Courtworker clients are Aboriginal persons – and the quality of training of the Courtworkers will directly affect those clients. Both gender and Aboriginal considerations are at play in the recommendation that family and civil services in Yellowknife should be delivered through an outreach clinic and/or through community agencies. This method of delivery is more appropriate for persons who are not automatically “delivered” to the legal aid system by the necessity of a court appearance and who, for reasons of culture, language, power relations and/or knowledge of systems, may be reluctant, embarrassed or afraid to ask for assistance. A more dynamic, outreaching PLEI delivery arm can also help such individuals achieve the basic knowledge and comfort levels necessary to approach the legal aid system.
It is unlikely that the LSB can address these major issues without a significant infusion of funds by either or both the territorial and federal governments. The drivers of costs in delivering legal services in the NWT have been documented in Section 10 and Section 11 of this report. Although the business case that was made by the federal Department of Justice to justify increases in prosecution staffing and resources was not available for this study, it is likely that it addressed many of the same realities.
To make the most effective use of any additional funds, the LSB will need to be more proactive in working with other departments or agencies with complementary objectives. Examples have been given of an outreach clinic that combines social workers, legal aid staff, Courtworkers and/or agency staff, or of developing technological capacities such as video-conferencing facilities throughout the territory, and of pursuing PLEI in tandem with social service deliverers. Similarly, Courtworker training could be considered in conjunction with parts of JP training. In a limited fiscal environment, creative solutions using a variety of partners and shared resources can optimize the quality of service delivery.
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