Toronto’s Old City Hall/l’Ancien hôtel de ville de Toronto.

On being duty counsel in drug treatment court

By Annie Schachar

I stand up in a room packed with spectators, and I pause to choose my words carefully before I address the audience.

Although I’m not making a long speech, I’m conscientious that my words may have a profound impact on someone’s life. I am acting as an LAO duty counsel lawyer in Toronto’s drug treatment court (DTC). At this moment, I am representing one of my clients at a DTC graduation ceremony at Toronto’s Old City Hall courthouse.

Just before I sit down, the audience responds with applause.  A few minutes later, the room erupts into a melee of hearty handshakes and hugs in support of the graduate.

History of drug treatment courts

Drug treatment courts (DTCs) are a unique form of criminal justice. They provide alternatives to prison for non-violent drug addicts facing criminal charges related to their addiction. The goal of a DTC is to rehabilitate addict offenders and prevent recidivism by integrating addiction therapy into the court process.

Before clients are admitted to the program they are subject to an intensive screening process. They are then required to enter a guilty plea and undergo intensive clinical treatment provided by CAMH. Upon successful completion of the program (which typically takes about a year or more), participants normally receive non-custodial sentences and leave with renewed hope for a drug-free life.

The first DTC was created in Miami in 1989 in response to overloaded court dockets and the over-representation of drug addicts in the criminal justice system. Twenty-five years later, there are more than 2500 drug courts in operation worldwide, but only one in Toronto.

Duty Counsel in DTC

Since 2007, I have acted as one of several specially-trained duty counsel lawyers in DTC at Old City Hall. There are usually between 45 and 60 clients in Toronto’s DTC, and almost all of them are represented by LAO duty counsel.

Because of the time commitment required to effectively represent clients in DTC (twice-weekly court appearances and “pre-court” meetings), it is unusual for clients to retain private counsel. This means that duty counsel is highly-involved in all of the operations of DTC.

From a defence counsel perspective, the most distinct difference between working in a DTC courtroom and a “regular” courtroom is that DTC employs a collaborative approach to justice as opposed to an adversarial one. This means that as a lawyer I have to adjust my advocacy strategies from the ones I would use in, for example, bail court. This is a unique challenge for duty counsel, since our primary responsibility is of course to represent our clients.

Finding comfortable ground between conveying our clients’ desires to the court and still upholding the courtroom’s collaborative approach towards rehabilitation can be delicate, but it provides a refreshing hiatus from the adversarial atmosphere in other courtrooms. Representing clients in DTC has been among the most challenging, yet rewarding work of my career.

Specialized client service

Another challenge of acting as duty counsel in DTC is managing relationships with the clients themselves. People who are struggling with substance abuse issues are often battling a host of other issues such as homelessness, mental illnesses and a history of trauma. Providing appropriate service to this community requires understanding and sensitivity.

From working closely with the addiction therapists from CAMH, I have learned that clients experiencing changes in temperaments is often a part of the recovery process. My time in DTC has allowed me to develop skills in working with people that I can apply to all my other work as duty counsel.

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is when I develop close relationships with clients. Because DTC clients are required to attend court twice a week, duty counsel gets to know and understand our clients on a much deeper level than in other courts where the clients are more transient.

This means that I share in both the failures and the triumphs of my DTC clients. There, I am much more than just a criminal defence lawyer – I am a member of a team whose collective goal is to encourage, inspire and support people grappling with addiction on their personal journey toward recovery.

Back at the graduation ceremony, I am waiting in line with the judge, the CAMH therapists, family members and all the other participants to shake hands with our newest graduate.

I reach out my hand, but my client pulls me in for a big bear hug, telling me: “I couldn’t have done it without you, Annie.”

Annie Schachar is a duty counsel lawyer with LAO. She has worked in Toronto’s Drug Treatment Court.