Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) recently launched a website entitled LawFacts which is designed to provide information about the criminal justice system to people in Ontario. (See the press release here.) It will not provide you with specific legal advice about your particular situation, but it does have general information on:
- Being a surety
- Court orders
- Duty counsel
- First appearances
- Guilty pleas
- Peace bonds
- Types of sentences
In addition, it has some forms and checklists that people might find helpful, as well as a glossary of legal terms. Some of the information on this website will be applicable to people outside Ontario (since much of the criminal justice system is governed by the Criminal Code – a federal statute), but some of it is unique to the way we do things in this province.
Concern has been raised among the criminal defence bar that LAO may be attempting to steer people towards duty counsel and towards early pleas with this endavour, rather than encouraging and enabling them to retain counsel (which would allow them to fully realize and enforce their Charter rights in the criminal justice process). This is something that defence lawyers understand (as we all should) is necessary to (a) prevent wrongful convictions and (b) support a system that would accord everyone a maximal amount of procedural protection to ensure they are treated fairly.
LAO may well have a vested interest in pushing people towards duty counsel and early guilty pleas since it makes their job of disbursing limited legal aid funds to accused who need a lawyer easier. However, even if this is true (and I don’t claim to know whether it is or not) I don’t think that invalidates the utility of a website like LawFacts. I am of the opinion that the more educated people are the better they are able to make informed choices and enforce their rights, which in turn ensures that the system works properly for all. In fact, this is one of the main philosophies behind my blog and writing about police related issues – to better equip the public to interact with police and the justice system in a more informed and educated way.
For those who do want to educate themselves, I would suggest you not stop at this website, but I think it can be a good start. That being said, I think no amount of personal education is a substitute for a properly trained and experienced lawyer assisting you – be they privately retained or funded by Legal Aid, especially in criminal cases where the stakes are highest.
Simon Borys is a law student at Queen’s University in Kingston. He is also a former police officer and an an aspiring criminal lawyer. His Blog, Simon Says, focuses on dispelling policing myths and demystifying the law.