With an unprecedented amount of interest, information and engagement, Canada’s legal community is poised to meaningfully boost access to justice. So says The Honourable Mr. Justice Thomas Albert Cromwell, Supreme Court of Canada Justice and Chair of the National Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters.
“I’ve never seen this level of engagement on an issue, in my legal career,” Justice Cromwell told Convocation, June 27. “We can seize this moment. We have a window of opportunity.”
Justice Cromwell brought Convocation up to speed on the National Action Committee’s work and its planned “road show” — a series of events to bring recommendations to the public and justice community, starting as early as this fall.
“This is a stakeholder-driven exercise,” he said. “At the present time, we are consensus-building. This is very much the beginning. Reform is a process. It needs goals.”
Innovation in the Public Interest
Law Society Treasurer Tom Conway has made access to justice a priority for the society under his leadership. Justice Cromwell acknowledged the LSUC focus and noted that the national committee is all about consensus-building, across the nation and across professions.
“Don’t take it as, ‘I’m here from Ottawa and I’m here to help you,'” Justice Cromwell said.
“This is not about lawyers charging too much. It’s about providing justice in a more cost-efficient manner. If the court system is inefficient, the costs go up. On the legal services side, we have not explored all the models that might help to get meaningful access to justice. All the players are going to have to be willing to get together and work in a systematic way. The legal community is ideally placed to look at innovations that are in the public interest.”
The national action committee was set up by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin in 2008, with co-operation from the Canadian Bar Association and the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice. In addition to legal community leaders, two deputy ministers of justice, judicial councils and legal organizations with their own access to justice initiatives, contribute to the committee.
Fair and Just Outcomes
Justice Cromwell says the committee has developed a working definition of access to justice: “People will have appropriate access to justice when they have the resources, skills and services to address their civil and family legal issues. Our approach is that we must focus on fair and just outcomes that are reasonably acceptable to the participants.”
The committee has four priority areas: court processes and simplification; access to legal services; access to family justice; and prevention, triage and referral. Determining what would represent appropriate access to justice in each area, and developing recommendations for action, is next.
The World Justice Index 2011 ranked Canada 16th out of 23 high-income countries in terms of access to civil justice. The ranking is explained by the lack of affordability of legal services and the lengthy duration of civil cases, Justice Cromwell said.
“I have no illusions that we will wake up one morning and it will all be better. We declare victory too soon. We say, ‘Isn’t that great,’ and walk away. There is so much happening now, but this is not a one-year thing we’re talking about. It must be sustained and systematic.”
The Honourable Justice’s “Road Show” comes to Ontario later this month, when LSUC Treasurer Conway hosts the “Creating a Climate for Change” symposium.
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