Legal Aid, Courtworker, and Public Legal Education and Information Needs in the Northwest Territories
Appendix 1 - Summary of Legal Aid Focus Group * Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, August 12, 2002
The purpose of the focus group was to reflect on the priorities that should be assigned, and the rationales and strategies that should be applied to 35 legal aid needs in the NWT. These needs had been identified through 87 key respondent interviews and were listed in the document distributed to participants. This list was drawn from a summary of a July 4 document entitled “Study of Legal Aid: A Point Summary of Findings to Date on Ten Research Issues” and submitted to the Department of Justice. The needs list, the summary document and an agenda were sent to participants a week in advance of the meeting.
Twelve participants were invited to the meeting. Nine attended in person, one by teleconference, and two could not attend. They were selected with several principles in mind:
- Representation of difference sectors of the criminal justice system.
- Representation either of activity governing the NWT as a whole, and/or of activity in a variety of communities.
- Aboriginal representation.
- Gender balance.
- Direct “front-line” experience.
- Substantial exposure to legal aid clients and/or legal aid issues.
- Ability to reflect on either/both criminal and civil (including family) issues.
- Ability to discuss matters in “systems” terms rather than solely as representatives of a particular constituency.
The participants were:
- Acting Executive Director of the Legal Services Board.
- Director, Court Services (and former director of Legal Services Board).
- Former Director of Corporate Services, NWT Department of Justice.
- Chairman, Legal Services Board (also a JP and representative from the South Slave region).
- Courtworker servicing Rae, Whati, Klut’se, Rae Lake and Snare Lake.
- Staff lawyer for civil matters and PLEI.
- Crown counsel (and former staff lawyer in Inuvik).
- Executive Director, NWT Status of Women.
- Director, Yellowknife Women’s Centre.
- Private lawyer serving Sahtu region (Fort Good Hope, Norman Wells, Kulita, Deliné, Colville Lake).
The meeting was divided into two parts, each one and three quarter hours in length.
Following introductions and explanations, participants were asked to complete the rating document shown in Appendix 1. They then each explained the underlying principles or rationale that guided their assignment of priorities. Participants were free to change their ratings at any point in this discussion.
During the break the average ratings for each of the needs on the list were calculated and written on flipcharts. Participants were asked to suggest strategies and resources that would need to be mobilized to address the issues that had been rated the highest.
Averaged priority ratings assigned to each need are presented in descending order in Table 1. It should be emphasized that, because of the small group size, the notion of an “average rating” is very tenuous. Average ratings could have changed significantly with the addition of even a few more respondents; a single low rating could significantly lower the average of higher ratings assigned by the majority of respondents. The ratings, although of interest in themselves, were intended as a reflective and discussion-generating process rather than as a planning process.
In general, the order of the average ratings shows that the current priorities in the NWT, as perceived by the focus group participants, are:
- To concentrate rigorously on the development of the role and skills of the Courtworker (items 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 15). This springs from the significant roles that many Courtworkers are already playing in JP courts, and the fact that, in many cases, they are the only permanent on-the-ground resource in smaller communities.
- To attend urgently to the 6–8- month backlog of family cases, and to provide increased support in various ways in the family/client area (items 1, 10, 12, 14, 16).
- To increase accessibility for Aboriginal populations (items 7 and 13), a matter that would also be addressed in part through increased focus on the Courtworker role.
- Two additional needs were identified by the focus group members and – although with a low number of respondents – given high level of importance.. The first (item 8) was that the Legal Services Board play a more activist role in seeking joint solutions to problems with other government departments or community agencies (e.g., with Social Services to deal with alternate approaches to wardship cases). The second was to explore a variety of technological approaches that could help the delivery of legal aid in remote communities. The most immediate instance of this type of technology was the use of video-conferencing for show cause hearings in remote communities, as a superior mechanism to teleconferencing. As with item 8, this might require a more activist role for the Legal Services Board in terms of collaboration with other government departments and agencies.
Participants were asked to describe the main principles, philosophy or rationale that guided them in rating items. This was done for two reasons: (1) to foster discussion that might encourage participants to revise their rating (somewhat like a mini-Delphi exercise), and (2) to suggest principles that should be considered if the federal government directs and targets new expenditures in the area of legal aid.
The following rationales were described by participants:
- Courtworkers are a critical component of the delivery system, given the large Aboriginal population, the remoteness and small size of many of the NWT's communities, the increased role of JP courts, and the need for a greater legal aid presence in communities between circuits.
- Family law (and child welfare) matters are currently undersupported compared to criminal matters. The current backlog of family cases is seen as a critical and urgent matter.
- Accessibility is a critical aspect of service delivery, and needs to be improved on a variety of fronts.
- Alternative and innovative approaches to service delivery must be considered, given the crisis environment of legal aid funding.
- Private bar participation in the delivery of legal aid needs to be encouraged and increased.
Various strategies, related to the five sets of priority issues identified earlier in section 4, are presented in Table 22.
* Note: This appendix is a slightly adapted version of the report of the focus group sent to the Department of Justice in mid-August 2002. Several appendices to the original report have not been included in this report.
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