Legal Aid Research Series Court Side Study of Adult Unrepresented Accused in the Provincial Criminal Courts Part 1: Overview Report

1. Introduction

1. Introduction

1.1 Background and Project Objectives

After a period of significant growth in legal aid, jurisdictions in Canada have seen a decade or so of either zero growth or reductions in funding and services in criminal legal aid.  This trend has culminated in what has been referred to as a “crisis” by the Canadian Bar Association.[1] Following a period of strong growth in legal aid cases and expenditures during the 1980s and early 1990s, there has been a steady national trend of decreasing numbers of cases approved for legal aid, and decreasing total and per capita expenditures (constant dollars) on legal aid in Canada.

The principle behind legal aid is that access to legal representation in serious matters should not be dependent on the accused person’s ability to pay.  The importance of this principle is underscored by convincing evidence that the poor experience a different quality of justice than the well-off.[2]  In criminal cases, the poor are more likely to be detained in custody prior to trial, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to receive a harsher sentence.

Debates over the extent to which reductions in expenditures and services were actually affecting the numbers of unrepresented accused in criminal courts across Canada culminated in a decision by the Department of Justice and the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Permanent Working Group on Legal Aid to measure:

  • The frequency with which accused persons are appearing before the court without representation at different stages of the court process.
  • The impacts of self-representation on the accused themselves, on other groups involved in the court process, and on the courts in total.

The current document provides an overview of the key findings of a study undertaken to address both questions with respect to adult accused charged with Criminal Code and drug offences[3] whose cases are heard in the provincial courts.[4],[5]

1.2 Format of the Report

This overview report is divided into five chapters. Chapter 2 describes the Methodology of the study. Chapter 3 presents our findings with respect to the key contextual factors which must be recognized in examining the frequency and impacts of a lack of legal representation in adult criminal courts. Chapter 4 focuses on the prevalence of self-representation at the nine court sites. Chapter 5 reports on the impacts of self-representation on the accused and the courts. This overview report concludes in Chapter 6 with a discussion of a range of solutions that were suggested (by those interviewed) to the problem of unrepresented accused.

More detailed reports of our findings from the individual sites are bound separately.[6]

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