Why “Access to Justice” is such a hot topic.
By Caroline Nevin
Something curious is happening on the way to the election(s) this year… all of a sudden, everyone’s talking about Access to Justice. There are a number of reasons for this, but perhaps the best explanation is that there has been a convergence of events and interests that have led to justice – the administration and funding of justice in particular – becoming a critical topic of public debate.
During the recent B.C. Liberal leadership campaign, CBABC wrote to all of the leadership candidates to express the concern of the Bar about the justice system. Justice was included in their subsequent policy discussions, including those of the successful candidate, Christy Clark. We have every expectation that justice will be an important component of policy discussions by the NDP leadership hopefuls.
As important as it is to ensure that political leaders and decision-makers are talking about these issues, the key to this particular moment in time is that this discussion isn’t restricted to any one place in society – everyone is talking.
As controversial as they may be in some quarters, public commentaries by the Chief Justices of Canada and B.C. have resonated in the homes of people in places like Golden and Campbell River, who see the reality of the lack of access to justice in their communities. Crown Counsel with unmanageable caseloads are speaking up about the current policy of attrition that provides no replacements for their colleagues who retire, go on parental leave or become judges. The Chief Judge is vocal in his concern about the vacancies in Provincial Court that are – and will continue to – result in cases being delayed too long and therefore being dismissed.
And now we have the Report of the Public Commission on Legal Aid that demonstrates, more clearly than ever, the very personal negative impact that occurs daily as a result of underfunding of legal aid and a lack of multi-service integration to support people of limited means interacting with the justice system.
Among the profession, there is relief that the debate is becoming a more public topic. We’ve been talking about this for years, as we’ve watched the system’s cracks become more and more apparent under the strain of doing more with less. And lawyers have done more than anyone will ever know to repair those cracks and hold the system up, because that is the nature of the people who become lawyers. Through both personal and organized pro bono and reduced-fee work, extra hours by Crown, assistance by judges and legal groups to unrepresented litigants, and the work of the Legal Services Society to stretch every dollar further, the legal profession has done everything in its power to prop up a glorious but struggling system of justice.
One growing part of the debate within the profession at the moment, though, is about whether or not we have now reached a point where there is both a real and possibly a moral limit to what can and should be done to protect the public from the reality of what’s going on in their justice system. Given the current state of affairs, it seems likely that there will be a natural, unavoidable exposure to the truth – lawyers, judges, court administrators and community groups will continue to do what they can, but the growing gaps in service will become increasingly apparent and abhorrent to the public. Perhaps then the political debate will move from electioneering stages, courtroom steps and kitchen tables, to serious negotiations at the Treasury Board table. CBABC will continue to ensure a strong voice for the profession throughout, and is taking a leadership role in bringing together key stakeholders for what will likely become a two-day Symposium on Access to Justice later this year.
This article was published in the April 2011 issue of BarTalk. © 2011 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.