Andrew Pilliar: what will you do about access to justice this year?

By Andrew Pilliar ( image source)

We don’t have an access to justice crisis in Canada.*

The Oxford English Dictionary offers this definition for “crisis”: “A vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning-point… “

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying that access to justice problems don’t daily plague the lives of thousands of people across the country.  For many of these people, access to justice is a personal crisis.

But from the perspective of the legal profession, access to justice plainly is not a crisis.  It is a problem that has been with us for a long time.  How else to explain the veritable avalanche of reports on access to justice over the decades?  How else to explain the fact that Chief Justice McLachlin has been calling on the bar to improve access to justice throughout her near decade-and-a-half as Chief Justice?  Given this, it seems more apt to think of the problem of access to justice as a chronic problem rather than a crisis.

Why does this matter?  Because how we characterize a problem affects how we respond to that problem.

The case for access to justice has been made

2013 saw the publication of two significant reports on access to justice in Canada: the CBA’s Reaching Equal Justice report, and the report of the National Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters.

Both of these reports have highlighted the scope of access problems across Canada.  And both of these reports have outlined concrete steps to improve access to justice.  But change, if it happens at all, will not happen overnight.  The CBA report calls for changes to be made across the profession and across society by 2030.

The CBA report’s recommendations are expressly built on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, and these long-range targets for change serve the purpose of fixing goals to aim for.  The goals are laudable, but there is danger that too many of us will defer acting to another day.  There is danger that too many legal professionals will regard access to justice as someone else’s issue.

Improving access to justice is not something that will be taken care of by delegating work to a committee.  Improving access to justice is incumbent on all of us as legal professionals.

Despite the numbers – research shows that almost 45% of Canadians have experienced a legal problem over the past three years, but fewer than 10% of those sought legal assistance – it can be easy to imagine that access to justice problems are not pressing, or aren’t as important as the actual crises that fill the news every day.

I think back to my practice experiences, and of the individuals who I talked to who were visibly struggling with legal problems but had no way to afford legal assistance.  I was able to help some of them on a pro bono basis.  But there were many more people who did not receive much-needed legal assistance.  Many similar stories are found in the full CBA report.

Another excellent source of inspiration is the recent Self-Represented Litigants Project by Professor Julie Macfarlane at the University of Windsor Faculty of Law.  The stories of individuals who experience access to justice problems help to make concrete what “access to justice” means.  For these individuals and thousands like them, access to justice is a crisis.

How you can contribute to improving access to justice

How can you take steps to improve access to justice?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Read the reports to understand the state of access to justice problems in Canada today, and to better understand what access to justice looks like for individuals.
  • Increase the amount of pro bono work you do, and ensure that your pro bono work is directed at improving access to justice for those who are most in need.
  • Recruit a colleague to increase the amount of pro bono work they do to improve access to justice.
  • If you are in a position of influence in your practice, encourage your firm to do more to support access to justice and pro bono activities.
  • Commit to taking on “low bono” cases where appropriate, by charging reduced rates to potential clients who cannot afford full-fee services.
  • Partner with social services or access to justice agencies in your community to better understand how you can reach individuals with access problems.
  • If you are involved politically, speak out to make improving access to justice part of your party’s platform – whether provincially or federally.  If you aren’t politically active, consider becoming active in the name of access to justice.

Do you have other tangible suggestions?  Leave them in the comments section below, particularly if you’ve tried something and found it successful.

As has often been said, there is no silver bullet in addressing access to justice problems.  But responding to a chronic problem requires each of us to take steps to improve the situation.

You may have made – and perhaps already broken – your New Year’s resolutions for 2014.  But I encourage you to add to your list.  This year, commit to doing something to measurably improve access to justice for someone in your community.  It may not be much, but make sure it’s something.

* Thanks to Efrat Arbel for inspiring this blog post with her talk on the nature of crises at the Canadian Law and Society Conference 2013.

Andrew Pilliar is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia Faculty of Law.  Prior to graduate school, he practiced litigation at a national firm and at a small boutique, both in Vancouver.  He was an Action Canada Fellow in 2012/2013.  Watch his recent TEDx Talk, “Why You Should Care about Access to Justice”.