Duty Counsel – who they are, what they do

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Updated June, 2022

Duty Counsel are lawyers paid by Legal Aid BC to give legal advice to people going to court without lawyers in criminal, family, child protection, and immigration law matters. They provide a crucial service, both to people needing help with legal issues and to Canadian courts, by explaining options and giving people legal advice early in court proceedings when they do not have other access to a lawyer.

Immigration Duty Counsel are available at the Canada Border Services Agency’s enforcement centre in Vancouver.

Each Canadian province and territory has its own arrangement for Duty Counsel. In BC, Duty Counsel are lawyers in private practice who are retained by Legal Aid BC to serve as Duty Counsel on specified days. Posted just before National Duty Counsel Day, this article explains what family and criminal Duty Counsel do in BC Provincial Court matters.

Family Duty Counsel

In many family law matters, Duty Counsel can provide people who qualify financially with free legal advice. They can:

• give verbal advice about your legal rights, obligations, and court procedures
• review and help prepare court documents
• help negotiate and settle issues
• help prepare or review consent orders or family agreements that can be filed in court
• attend a case conference with you
• speak in court for you on matters like asking for an adjournment, a consent order, or an emergency protection order
• refer you to other resources.

However, they cannot:

• give written advice
• go to court for any contested trial or hearing with complicated issues
• help with complex property disputes, or give tax advice
• help you if you already have a lawyer
• prepare your court documents
• help you with any non-family-law legal problems
• serve or accept court documents for you
• become your lawyer while acting as duty counsel.

Duty Counsel’s services are intended to help people with lower incomes who are representing themselves in court. They give priority to people who are in court that day, either for matters on the court list or to make emergency applications. After court proceedings finish, they may have time to advise people who aren't appearing in court that day. People with a family law or child protection issue may be able to get help from Family Duty Counsel even if they don’t qualify for a legal aid lawyer.

For information on Duty Counsel’s availability call 604-408-2172 (in Greater Vancouver) or 1-866-577-2525 (elsewhere in BC) or contact your local Court Registry.

Criminal Duty Counsel

People charged with a crime who haven’t retained a private or legal aid lawyer can get help from Duty Counsel. In criminal matters, Duty Counsel can:

• provide advice about charges, court procedures, and legal rights
• represent people at a bail hearing
• when time permits, advise on a guilty plea and speak to sentence in court

There are no financial criteria to get Criminal Duty Counsel services, but people must meet income requirements in order to have Legal Aid BC appoint a lawyer to represent them at a trial.

Contact your local court registry for information about Duty Counsel’s availability in criminal cases. They may be available in person, or by telephone or video-conference.

National Duty Counsel Day

Duty Counsel provide services to people who may be at their most vulnerable – either in jail facing criminal charges or in court proceedings that affect their families, children, and financial situations. Those legal services are so important, they’re guaranteed by our Charter of Rights in many situations.

Provincial Court Chief Judge Melissa Gillespie said, “Duty counsel play an integral role in the justice system. Duty counsel can provide free advice about legal rights and court procedures to individuals involved in Provincial Court family and criminal matters in the circumstances described here. This direct provision of services not only helps people understand the legal issues they face and how the court system works, it helps the Court provide a forum for justice that is accessible, fair, and efficient.”

On October 27, 2021, from 2:00 to 3:00 pm PST, Canadians including Canada’s Chief Justice Richard Wagner, Chief Judge Gillespie, chief justices and judges from other courts across Canada, elected officials, legal aid lawyers, staff, and clients will participate in a virtual event to celebrate Duty Counsel.

You can join them by registering at Duty Counsel Day Event.

More info

Duty counsel lawyers for criminal law matters - Legal Aid BC

Duty counsel lawyers for family law matters - Legal Aid BC

Know your Duty Counsel - Legal aid plans of Canada

For more information about Crown Counsel (prosecutors) and Defence Counsel, other lawyers involved in criminal cases, see our Criminal practice and procedure FAQs.