Criminal Law

Helping marginalized appellants a labour of love

Although it requires a lot of effort for virtually no pay, it is an honour to be a member of the group of highly skilled advocates working as counsel for the Ontario Inmate Appeal Duty Counsel Program, Toronto criminal lawyer Jill Presser tells Lawyers Weekly.

The program, which began as a pilot project 17 years ago by lawyers Marie Henein and Alison Wheeler, provides assistance to unrepresented criminal appellants at the Court of Appeal.

As the article notes, these individuals do not generally have counsel, either because they have been denied Legal Aid funding or they cannot afford a lawyer.

The select group providing these services has now grown to about 30 criminal lawyers.

“There are specific criteria for being invited to join the program and they involve having argued a minimum of a certain number of criminal appeals in the Court of Appeal,” explains Presser.

“We give legal advice, legal information, we help the appellants try to navigate the appellate system, we can help them focus and present their arguments,” she adds.

The inmates being represented are often “very vulnerable and very marginalized,” Presser says in the article, “so I feel that it’s really important to help them.”

Over the course of two days of inmate appeals, a duty counsel might argue somewhere between five and 10 appeals — sometimes they win none, sometimes two or three, Presser tells Lawyers Weekly.

“But even to help very marginalized people argue an appeal and navigate the system, even if we’re unsuccessful for them, I think it’s really important because it gives people actual access to justice. We try to win the appeals for them. Even if we can’t, they’ve had a real day in court,” she adds.

Presser tells the story of one inmate who had endured a difficult life and was serving a long penitentiary sentence, where he’d been beaten and sustained brain damage.

“I really tried to help him and in the end we weren’t successful. At some point I was talking to him in the cells at the Kingston courthouse as duty counsel and he said to me, ‘you are the first educated person who ever tried to really help me or do anything for me.’ So it’s pretty powerful,” she says.

Over the past few years, an increasing number of people have needed the assistance of the duty counsel program, says Presser — she believes this is partly a result of Legal Aid funding fewer criminal appeals.

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