This post is part of our Personal perspectives on access to justice series.
Access to justice takes many forms
At its most basic, access to justice means an appropriate level of assistance with legal issues for people when they need help to protect basic rights or needs.
These basic rights include housing, access to social supports and assistance, education, employment, medical care, child custody, spousal or child support, defending one’s autonomy or obtaining protection from abuse.
When issues of crucial importance to a person’s basic well-being are at stake, assistance should be available regardless of a person’s ability to pay or understand the relevant legal processes. Denial or obstruction of such assistance can take many forms—such as financial, social, or systemic barriers.
Low-income people are, effectively being denied access to justice, for instance, if they are forced to rely on legal practitioners who are over-worked and under-resourced. For true justice to be served, there must be equity of justice for all people, not one type of justice for the wealthy and another for lower-income people.
Most importantly, if a system leaves people feeling victimized and manipulated, it’s not providing access to justice. Judicial processes in place to deal with legal issues must be efficient and effective so that those involved feel they were heard and treated fairly.
What access to justice means for the people I see or serve every day
For my clients, access to justice means having someone to turn to when they feel their income, social services, autonomy or human rights are threatened. They want someone to listen to them, understand their situation and provide them with a means to resolve their problems .
It also means being understood and respected, and feeling that the processes used to resolve their dispute were fair and reasonable. For clients with disabilities, this often includes obtaining the supports and accommodations they require to access information and physical locations.
My vision of access to justice
In a perfect world, everyone’s legal rights would be understood and protected by all. And if a person’s rights were threatened and they required assistance to protect their rights, they would have access to competent legal advice and support regardless of their ability to pay.
A legal professional providing assistance would have the resources to devote as much time as they need to ensure an issue was dealt with, and to feel confident in providing high-quality services to their clients. Such services would include accommodation of needs related to disabilities, and an understanding of the social and economic position of clients.
Ideally, litigation would be required in only rare instances. When problems arose there would be a variety of options available to resolve conflicts and to protect rights. Mediation and alternative dispute resolution would be available as well as counselling and other options that do not require litigation.
Fundamentally, all decision-making processes would ensure that people feel they are heard and respected and that serious consideration given to their claim.
Ed Montigny has been a staff lawyer at ARCH Disability Law Centre since 2009. He completed a Ph.D in Canadian History in 1994 studying social policy affecting family care for elderly persons with disabilities in 19th century Ontario. He has taught courses on poverty, equality and human rights at various Ontario Universities. In 1993 he joined the Board of Directors at Neighbourhood Legal Services. Inspired by the work of the clinic, he decided to attend law school. Between 2005 and 2009 Ed operated his own, largely legal aid focused, practice serving clients with disabilities and special needs and taught part-time in Humber College’s Tribunal Agent and Paralegal Program. He is currently Chair of the Canadian Bar Association Legal Aid Liaison Committee, past-Chair of the Ontario Bar Association (OBA) Equality Committee and past-chair of the OBA Administrative Law Section.