Lack of understanding results in lack of confidence.
by James M. Bond
We regularly read and hear about the public’s lack of confidence in the justice system – the foundation upon which the rest of our society’s institutions function. We are told that the public has the same level of esteem for lawyers as they do for used car salesmen. Judges and their decisions are regularly criticized in and through the media. Police are likened to either mall security guards on the one hand, or thugs on the other.
Yet those of us who operate within the Canadian justice system know that while it is not perfect, it is without a doubt one of the best justice systems in the world. Government officials, judges, lawyers and law enforcement agencies from around the world come to Canada to learn how our system works. Every day our justice system puts guilty people behind bars, frees innocent people, welcomes individuals who deserve to become new Canadians, sends back those who don’t and awards damages to people who have been injured.
So why the disconnect?
There are undoubtedly a myriad of reasons. However, I believe that chief among them is a lack of education – and therefore, a lack of understanding – about the justice system. I fear that members of the public do not have an adequate understanding of the underlying principles of our justice system, including the need to uphold the rule of law and ensure the proper administration of justice. I worry that they do not distinguish between the roles that each of the players within the system has, which ensure that a proper outcome is achieved. I am particularly concerned that we aren’t taking the time to teach our youngest members of society about these things. We shouldn’t be surprised when people don’t have confidence in a system they either don’t understand or they misapprehend.
The British Columbia Branch is concerned about this increasing lack of public confidence and has commissioned a study to identify some of the key reasons why there is a growing gap in confidence. While the results of the report are yet to be released, I can tell you that the study points to a significant connection between the lack of understanding about our justice system and the level of confidence in it.
In my view, lawyers, judges and law enforcement personnel all need to take responsibility in educating the public – not just about our own roles within the justice system, but about how the system as a whole works. Currently, some stakeholders in the justice system (including the Canadian Bar Association) are working on secondary education curriculum proposals which would include the role of the justice system in Canada in the educational programs taught in British Columbia schools.
Unfortunately, one of the best tools the justice system has had for teaching the importance of the justice system (and in particular the role of the courts) to students in this province has been gutted. The Justice Education Society, which until now has run extremely successful court visits and school outreach programs across the province, has had its funding cut by 62 per cent – from $500,000 to $110,000. Without proper funding of the Justice Education Society, we will have lost one of our best educational tools for combating lack of confidence in the justice system.
Lamenting the problem of lack of public confidence is not enough. Neither is simply responding to criticism when it is levelled at the system. Lawyers, judges, law enforcement and governments need to be proactive. Restoration of the funding to the Justice Education Society would be a good (but small) first step.
This article was published in the December 2009 issue of BarTalk. © 2009 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.