This year LESA’s summer students (Kristine Gu and myself – Allison Boutillier) are interviewing practitioners to gain insight into the broad range of careers that a legal education can lead to. For the third interview, we sat down with Cyndy Barber to learn more about her role as Family Court Duty Counsel.
We asked Cyndy to tell us a little about her position, and she explained that duty counsel are lawyers, typically employed by Legal Aid Alberta, who appear in courts of first appearance to provide assistance to unrepresented parties. According to Cyndy, it is very important to ensure that things are done right at these initial stages:
Docket or chambers is often where people get their most significant – indeed their only – court ordered relief. People get child and spousal support orders, they get parenting orders, they get home possession orders, restraining orders. In theory, these are interim and can be changed at trial, but the reality is that very few matters get to trial, … so these orders are profoundly important – first because they are, in practical terms, final, and second because they are about basic necessities of money, safety, homes, and parenting.”
For the most part, duty counsel deal with these matters on a preliminary basis, moving them to a trial or another type of setting for resolution. Given the right circumstances, however, it is can be possible to completely resolve the matter at hand:
It sort of depends on the file. It depends on the people. It depends on the duty counsel, probably, and the time we have, because sometimes we are completely swamped [so] that we don’t have a lot of time to start negotiating terms of parenting orders, for example.”
Regardless of the task at hand, however, the matters that duty counsel deals with move quickly and, according to Cyndy, that makes knowing the law one of the most important parts of the job:
I think you have to know the law and you have to have some experience in court. I did a lot, a lot of court work before I got to this job. I was in Chambers often, and I think that gives you an edge. It allows you to just get into it a little quicker.”
When asked about her previous experience, Cyndy explained that she cut her teeth working in private practice. She articled exclusively in family law and spent a total of 14 years working in the area before taking a position at Legal Aid Alberta, providing telephone legal advice. After a time, Legal Aid Alberta amalgamated its services, and Cyndy’s role changed to include working part-time as duty counsel. Now she acts as duty counsel at Provincial Docket Court on Monday and Tuesday afternoons and, otherwise, is at the Legal Aid Alberta office providing in-person and telephone advice and brief services.
If there is one thing that Cyndy misses about private practice, it is really getting into the litigation and seeing a file through from beginning to end. Occasionally, while working as duty counsel, she will have a client come back to see her multiple times over the course of a matter. For the most part, however, she is only involved in preliminary issues while the matter is at docket: “we’re there to assist and to speak on their behalf, but we don’t represent them in the true term of representation.”
Even though she sometimes misses carrying a file, Cyndy would not give up her job to go back to private practice. She told us that, above all else, she enjoys spending time with her family, and, although she works hard, her position at Legal Aid Alberta does not require her to take work home on the weekends or to work the long hours that are sometimes required in private practice.
Over and above the work-life balance, working as duty counsel also has the benefit of being a very rewarding occupation.
I love my job. It’s great. I deal with a lot of great people. I work with a lot of great people, and I love how our system works. It works very well. It is very, very supportive for people who do not have counsel.”
LESA Summer Student