Throughout her career, Indigenous Legal Aid Worker Sondra Gilbert has seen firsthand the barriers that Indigenous people encounter as they move through the court process.
Prior to joining Legal Aid Ontario’s Essex, Lambton, Kent District office, Sondra worked in Native child welfare.
“Frequently, I was approached by people who needed assistance with Family Law or Children’s Law Reform Act matters and there was little I could do,” she explains. “Now, as an Indigenous legal aid worker, I am able to provide that concrete, hands-on support to people completing forms and helping them to manoeuvre through the system.”
In her role, she assists Indigenous lawyers who provide advice clinics for both family and criminal matters to Indigenous people from the three First Nations in Lambton County. She’s also involved in the Walpole Island satellite court, which is held once a month inside local band council chambers for court proceedings for less serious offences.
One component of her job involves sharing information with the community so that people can make informed decisions about what services will be the best fit for them. This includes the development of a resource directory and the distribution of information flyers to let people know about advice clinic schedules and contact information.
“The entire family court process can be very intimidating,” she acknowledges. “The people I am working with are unrepresented, so I help with introducing them to our duty counsel and then guide them back to the advice clinics if they need further documents prepared.”
She recalls an instance at the courthouse where she met a man who was served with an emergency motion for the next day and was at a complete loss as to what he should do. He was separated from his spouse and children and there was a domestic violence situation that led to charges against him.
Frightened at the prospect of losing all contact with his children, the man turned to Sondra, whom he had previously met at an advice clinic. In short order, she was able to determine what he would need and who he should speak to.
With a certificate, he was able to arrange for a lawyer to attend the emergency motion the next day and the client was able to work out a temporary access schedule to see his children.
“I really enjoy working with people and helping them get through the barriers of the court process,” Sondra says of her job. “Sometimes, this is in small ways, like providing them with information, a contact number or a date. Sometimes, it’s in larger ways, such as telling their stories on family court documents.”
If you live in the Lambton county and have questions about legal aid services, please call 1-877-449-4002 or visit legalaid.on.ca.