Improving the client experience at court

Woman sitting by water

*To protect the client's confidentiality, we have not used her real name.

Tammy* was charged with “theft under $5,000” for $1,400 worth of groceries. She already had a 13-year criminal record and if she got convicted this time, she would lose the licence she needed to do her job. Thanks to a unique legal aid service in Port Coquitlam, however, that didn’t happen.

Tammy had faced some devastating tragedies in her life, including the suicide of her 17-year-old daughter. At the time of the theft she was grieving and had relapsed into drug use.

Following her arrest, however, Tammy made extraordinary efforts to obtain and maintain her sobriety, get support for her continued abstinence, and was able to get a job.

When Tammy met Criminal Duty Counsel Carmen Ochitwa at the courthouse, she took responsibility for the theft. This meant Carmen could negotiate with Crown counsel for either a caution letter, a stay of proceedings, a referral to alternative measures, or a joint submission for a discharge. Anything else (probation, fine, or jail) would result in Tammy losing her job.

Often in these cases, a person has to go before a judge in court, which can take time, and an experience that most prefer to avoid. “If I could convince Crown it was not in the public interest to proceed,” said Carmen, “We wouldn’t have to go to court and convince the judge to grant her a discharge.”

Once the Crown reviewed the documentation duty counsel prepared, including Tammy’s story and the request to consider alternatives, Crown decided it wasn’t in the public interest to proceed and dropped the charges. “I was so relieved that I didn’t get a criminal conviction and could keep my job. Carmen knew what to do and took the stress out of it for me. Legal aid helped me get on with my life,” said Tammy.

“She’s an amazing woman,” said Carmen about Tammy. “She took every step she could access to deal with her issues, and has turned her life around in every way since the charge was laid.”

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