Legal Aid, Courtworker, and Public Legal Education and Information Needs in the Northwest Territories

5. Courtworkers

5. Courtworkers

5.1 Roles

Table 14 provides a statistical overview of Courtworker services over the past three years. Several generalizations can be made about the data in the table:

  • The out-of-court role of Courtworkers involves approximately twice the number of client contacts as the in-court roles.
  • There is a significant level of contact with young offenders. In the first two years shown, approximately 25 percent of Courtworker contacts in criminal matters is with young offenders, although in 2001–2002 this proportion falls to 15–18%. This is similar to the proportion of presumed eligibility contacts (28–30 percent) discussed in Section 2.1, and is significantly higher than the 8–10 percent of approved criminal legal aid applications involving youth.
  • The out-of-court role of Courtworkers involves significant involvement in civil/family matters (38 percent of total out-of–court contacts in 1999–2000, 40 percent in 2000–2001, and 46 percent in 2001–2002).

Legal Services Board documents and Courtworkers themselves also described Courtworker roles in the following terms:

  • In the criminal sphere, the role relates to the initial contacting and interviewing of accused persons, reviewing allegations and statements, discussing pleas and, when appropriate, discussing witnesses. Other smaller, but nonetheless significant, activities include plea discussions with Crown, and sentencing-related functions. In JP courts some Courtworkers have also done some trial work on behalf of clients. There is no difference in the roles of the Courtworker, as between adult and young offenders.
  • The primary focus of civil activity is to take legal aid applications in family matters, including helping the client gather the necessary financial information to support his/her application. Some Courtworkers also have provided clients with assistance in completing government forms, in landlord/tenant matters, for example, and in family matters when swearing affidavits. In the latter case, the Courtworker has developed skills under the close supervision of the staff lawyer.

Table 14: Courtworker Services

5.2 Pressure to Expand Roles

The largest single area of increase in demand for Courtworker services has been in relation to JP courts. Because, under most circumstances, lawyers do not appear in JP courts,[1] there has been more pressure for Courtworkers to do active court work (appear at show cause hearings, enter pleas, act for the client in trials, and speak to sentence) as opposed to simply being a resource for lawyers. There is a considerable division of opinion, across a range of respondents, over the advisability of and/or extent to which Courtworkers should be undertaking active in-court roles; their competence in carrying them out; and (among Courtworkers themselves) their confidence in doing so. (See also Section 4.)

5.3 Strengths, Barriers and/or Difficulties

The major strength identified by almost all respondents is the Courtworker's role as a cultural and social bridge between client, lawyer and court. This function includes such activities as locating and maintaining contact with clients and witnesses so that they can talk to a lawyer and appear in court; interpreting cultural, community and/or family dynamics that are pertinent to the case; assisting clients to complete legal aid applications; helping the client gather necessary financial information; helping clients develop statements; and picking up clients and bringing them to court. One respondent noted that while these activities are important in all cases, they are especially important in instances where the client pleads not guilty, because of the need to gather and interview witnesses.

In terms of other roles, survey respondents' confidence in Courtworkers varied, depending on the individual Courtworker's experience, knowledge and perceived practical effectiveness. For example, a JP in a small community that has been covered by various Courtworkers said, “I have had Courtworkers who would attempt minor trials with clients, do sentencing hearings, and make determined efforts on the client's behalf. I have also had Courtworkers who, by their obvious attitudes, had no desire to have anything dealt with by the JP court system, would automatically request that all matters be sent to Territorial Court, and, in some cases, prolonged matters for a client that could easily have been dealt with by the lower court.” The court-related role that respondents felt most confident Courtworkers could manage was speaking to sentence, but there was less confidence in their skills and knowledge to undertake pleas and trials. A large majority of JPs felt that Courtworkers were meeting the needs of clients in JP courts.

Some respondents felt that turnover in Courtworker jobs was affected by some of the positions being only part-time, while full-time is desired. Qualified persons tend to move on to full-time jobs.[2]

Courtworkers tended to identify barriers, difficulties and concerns most strongly in relation to JP courts where, as noted above, they are under more pressure. Three areas of concern are:

  • Dealing with clients effectively on an interpersonal basis (e.g., if clients are not able to accept responsibility, if they appear to be lying, if they are irate or agitated, or have fetal alcohol syndrome – FAS – or fetal alcohol effect – FAE – and/or some other disability).
  • Substantive legal issues and/or procedural issues for which they do not feel adequately trained.
  • Dealing with RCMP and Crown about disclosure or plea.

Almost all respondents – including Courtworkers themselves – emphasized the need for more Courtworker training. There was a general perception that training should be in smaller, more frequent sessions, rather than only once a year. In general terms, training issues raised by respondents include:

  • Purpose. Several respondents felt that the roles of the Courtworker should be more clearly defined and delimited, so that training could be developed to support the Courtworker in those roles.
  • Certification. That is, whether Courtworkers should be certified for various levels of activity. In the focus group one participant cited the training in the NWT of Ophthalmic Medical Assistants (OMAs), who carry out diagnostic and therapeutic procedures under the direction and supervision of a qualified ophthalmologist. Training of OMAs involves a well-defined curriculum and rigid assessment program.
  • Certification provides a clear focus on the development of specific skills and competencies and can increase the confidence and pride of individual workers. It can also involve a certain amount of inflexibility (i.e., Courtworkers could only undertake activities for which they are certified) and a perception on the part of clients that a worker is being bureaucratic if he/she is unable to assist them with certain problems.
  • Screening. There is a need for more careful screening of new Courtworker applicants, to assess character, education and language abilities. To date, screening has not allowed for uniform minimum standards, because the quality of candidates varies significantly from community to community.
  • Initial training. There is need for an automatic initial training period of 4–6 weeks for any newly hired Courtworker. (One respondent raised the concern that LSB may invest time and money in training a new Courtworker, only to have him/her leave a few months later.)
  • Substantive focus. There was a wide range of suggestions for the substantive focus of Courtworker training, with only three areas mentioned by more than two respondents: family law, general “paralegal-type” training, and trial procedures in JP court. This range and relative lack of specificity suggests a lack of consensus about the role the Courtworkers should be playing, as noted in the first point above. A recommendation of the focus group was that Courtworker training also include discussion and development of a code of conduct.
  • Format. That is, whether the emphasis should be on large group settings and/or on an individual mentoring or hands-on approach, and, if the latter, how it can best be facilitated.
  • Location. Whether training would be better provided centrally (usually Yellowknife) or closer to the Courtworkers' home communities.

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