Painting a realistic picture for clients is key to duty counsel work
Published: October 16, 2023
Helping clients navigate the justice system and court process is one of the most satisfying aspects of duty counsel work.
That’s the view of Steven Akman, who has been serving as a staff lawyer for Legal Aid Ontario in Belleville for the past 10 years. That role includes working as duty counsel, assisting clients at court as well as providing advice over the phone, at the family law information centre, in person and over email.
“I try to paint a realistic picture of what’s ahead for clients,” says Steven. “Clients need to know the strengths and weaknesses of their matter from the outset and what they can reasonably expect as a likely outcome.”
He recalls a satisfying resolution in a recent family law case. A baby was in the care of third parties rather than the biological parents. The caregivers sought legal support to make decisions for the child and obtain services such as standard childhood vaccinations, but the parents would not agree. “In the end, we helped the clients get exactly what they wanted. They were pleased to get a final order that the child could continue to live with them, and they would have decision-making powers, with parental visitation.”
Duty counsel are often the first line of legal support for clients from marginalized communities. “We are helping individuals who are vulnerable or low-income, and it is very rewarding,” says Steven.
Originally from Ottawa, Steven worked for the federal government in various capacities and student placements before joining Legal Aid Ontario. These included stints at the Department of Justice and the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA).
“Based on my previous work and volunteer experience, I was drawn to the public service and to social justice,” he says. “What I like best about duty counsel work is that every day is different. Sometimes I’m in court for a few hours and then at the office meeting clients, working on documents, or doing research. There’s a nice balance of different elements.”
After graduating from the University of Ottawa law school, Steven articled with Legal Aid Ontario in Napanee before moving to Belleville in 2013. As duty counsel, he regularly attends at one courthouse in Belleville, which serves clients from Hastings and Quinte West Counties, and another in Picton, which helps clients from Prince Edward County.
His regular tasks include in-court services, document preparation, and providing legal advice in family law matters. Steven delivers that advice in person, by email, or over the phone with other staff members at the busy client lawyer service centre.
The pandemic added a layer of complication to duty counsel work, says Steven. “The family court experience can be stressful for clients to live through for a year or two. There can be long waits, and COVID created more delays and made things worse.”
The shift from in-person to virtual legal services presented challenges for both courts and clients, he says. The volume of phone calls to Legal Aid increased dramatically when courtrooms closed, and virtual services ramped up. “It’s good when we can deliver services electronically, but not all clients can access technology.”
Although the pandemic has waned, the time and expense of traveling to court are an ongoing challenge for clients. “Our large geographic region makes it difficult to get to court or access services. Clients are supposed to contact us for assistance, but I try to follow up with those I have assisted because I don’t want them to fall through the cracks.”
Giving back to the community and profession is important to Steven. He volunteers with the Ontario Justice Education Network to bring competitive mock trials to high schools, helping local students participate and learn about the justice and court system. He also serves as a director on the Hastings & Prince Edward Law Association, the local association for lawyers.
He has high praise for local colleagues and the Legal Aid team. “Our staff are great, and the judiciary respects us and are appreciative of our services. It’s a collegial environment where everyone works together, so we’re a very close bench and bar.”
When he’s not working, Steven and his partner enjoy traveling and water sports such as kayaking, paddle boarding and spending time with their five-year old husky, Sasha. “Our area has a lot to offer, and I love it here,” he says. “We have Prince Edward County with beautiful beaches, parks and wineries.”
Click here to download image.
Steven urges other lawyers and law students to consider working in the Belleville area. “This is a great place to live and work, and if someone is looking to take on certificates or per diem work, the staff here are always eager to help and support them. There’s definitely a need for more lawyers, especially in smaller communities. We deal with many different issues, so the work is always there and interesting.”
More about duty counsel
Ontario’s duty counsel are legal aid lawyers who give free legal advice in family, criminal and immigration law cases. These dedicated, compassionate individuals support people navigating the legal process and the justice system. This is one in a series of profiles of duty counsel across Ontario. Learn more on Duty Counsel Day.