Born Today? Access to Justice by College

J.H. Janßen

J.H. Janßen

A child born today in Canada could see equal access to justice in Canada by the time he graduates from high school.

Access to justice can be turned around by 2030, according to a Canadian Bar Association (CBA) report. “Reaching Equal Justice: An Invitation to Envision and Act” says addressing the current “abysmal state” of access to justice in Canada must be a priority.

Making that deadline will require “dramatic” change, the report says, and lists 31 recommendations for the legal industry, regulators, and government. These include establishing national benchmarks for legal aid coverage and increasing federal justice spending.

Melina Buckley, chair of the CBA’s access to justice committee, wrote the report. “We need to make visible the pain caused by inadequate access and the huge discrepancies between the promise of justice and the lived reality of barriers and impediments,” Buckley says. “Inaccessible justice costs us all, but visits its harshest consequences on the poorest people in our communities.”

The report reiterates Canada’s less-than-stellar ranking on international justice indicators, and cites research showing legal aid spending has remained flat for years.

A national research strategy, national targets for legal aid coverage, more community engagement on justice issues, steady increases in federal contributions to legal aid funding, and improved technology in the court system are among the recommendations.

Calls for Reform Becoming A Chorus

The 51-page report summarizes issues to be explored more fully in a paper expected to be published this fall.

This report is just the latest in a series of reports and initiatives pointing to the need for reforms that would increase access to justice in civil, legal and family law for low-income Canadians. Working people who do not qualify for legal aid are in particular need, recent studies have found. Several recommendations call for an expanded role for paralegals, to relieve pressure on an over-taxed and inaccessible justice system.

Addressing June Convocation, Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell told the Law Society benchers that change is on the horizon. Justice Cromwell chairs the National Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters, established by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin in 2008. The National Action Committee works in co-operation with the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice.

“This is not about lawyers charging too much,” Cromwell said. “It’s about providing justice in a more cost-efficient manner. All the players are going to have to be willing to get together and work in a systematic way.”

Increasing Role for Paralegals Suggested

CBC quoted Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin as saying access to justice is the most pressing challenge facing the administration of justice. McLachlin made the comments at the CBA’s annual meeting in Saskatoon, where delegates discussed the Reaching Equal Justice report.

In April, four reports released by working groups overseen by Justice Cromwell recommended change. The Family Law working group recommended expanding reliance on “properly trained and supervised paralegals, law students, articling students, and non-lawyer experts to provide a range of services to families with legal problems.”

A report released this year tackles the issues facing self-represented litigants in Canada. University of Windsor law professor Julie Macfarlane released the results of her National Self-Represented Litigants Project: Identifying and Meeting the Needs of Self-Represented Litigants, in May.

Highlights from the Macfarlane Report include:

    • According to data from provincial ministries, at least 40 per cent of family court litigants appear pro se
    • In some civil courts, 70 per cent of litigants self-represent
    • Self-representation has increased in small claims courts since the jurisdiction limit increased to $25,000
    • In Superior Civil Court, self-represented litigants outnumbered represented litigants in 1999; Macfarlane says that gap “will certainly be far larger” now

 

The CBA had released an earlier access to justice report in February, titled “Underexplored Alternatives for the Middle Class: Envisioning Equal Justice.”

In December 2013, the CBA released its Access to Justice Plan.

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