The first-ever Duty Counsel Day will be held on October 27, 2021, to acknowledge and celebrate duty counsel across Canada. Learn more about the role of duty counsel and how they help people by visiting the Duty Counsel Day website where you’ll find more information and lawyer profiles.
Family Duty Counsel Natalie Hillary enjoyed oral reasoning and advocacy as a student, so law felt like a natural career choice. After starting in litigation, Natalie worked for a firm focused on family law in Vancouver, B.C. When she joined PGS Law in nearby New Westminster in 2011, she realized legal aid was a good fit for her skills.
“You’re dealing with high emotions and difficult topics,” Natalie says. “You’re a lawyer, but people want you to be their counsellor, too. You have to be able to effectively explain things and bring emotions down. We had clients who needed help in high-stakes situations, and I wanted to be in court, making a difference.”
When an opportunity arose to be duty counsel, Natalie applied. She’s now mainly based out of the Richmond, B.C. provincial courthouse where she helps clients with family law issues, such as child protection and Family Law Act matters.
Natalie says many people she assists are facing their first time in court. They often come to court after talking to friends or searching the Internet for information, and don’t have a clear understanding of how the legal process works. She helps them understand that family law is fact-specific and outcomes vary case by case.
Duty counsel play an important role in providing an objective set of eyes in situations that involve high emotions. While people seeking legal help are often focused on what happened to them in the past, the courts are looking at what happens next.
“Our knowledge of the law and our objectivity are valuable qualities we bring to the table,” Natalie explains. “We show people how the judge or the court might view things. They don’t have all the information our clients have: they only have a short time to hear matters. Sometimes we tell people that something they think is important isn’t relevant.”
Natalie helps duty counsel clients prepare for court, understand court orders, negotiate their path forward, and connect with community resources. A vital part of her role is alleviating some of the burden on the court system by helping clients quickly obtain the orders they need or diverting them to a different forum to resolve their issues.
“We bring clarity to what are often chaotic and traumatic experiences,” Natalie says. “Navigating the legal system can be its own stress and trauma for people. We help people resolve their issues and get out of the system because it isn’t always the best place to resolve family law issues.”
Even though her interactions with duty counsel clients are typically short-term, Natalie makes a significant impact on their lives.
“Duty counsel is an important piece of accessing justice,” she says. “The legal system can be confusing if you don’t understand what you’re doing. We explain the process and what to expect so people don’t get frustrated and walk away when they need help. It’s an excellent resource that people should use.”