Justice for all

By Michael Dempster March 2013

The human cost of the justice gap hits close to home to members of the CBA’s access initiative.

Justice for all Dr. Melina Buckley,
Chair, CBA National Access to Justice Committee
Photo credit: Venturi+Karpa

Sheila Cameron’s heart goes out to low-income and middle-class families when feuding moms and dads seek justice in the courts.

Likewise, Amanda Dodge feels the desperation and anxiety of those living below the poverty line when legal issues threaten to crush already fragile lives.

And Sarah Lugtig knows too well how someone — “without even trying” — can let a small, untended legal problem snowball into something much worse.

All three lawyers are passionate members of the CBA’s National Access to Justice Committee that is leading a com­p­re­hensive initiative called Envisioning Equal Justice. They, like many colleagues, see firsthand the painful consequences when Canadians don’t get the legal help or information they need.

As part of that initiative, the CBA will host a national summit in Vancouver, April 25-27, where committee members expect momentum to gather in efforts to “change the conversation,” build public engagement and broaden ownership of the issue.

“I think we are at a critical moment in terms of access to justice,” says committee chair, Dr. Melina Buckley. “We’ve been stalled for a long time and I think we are poised to make a big push, to potentially make some dramatic gains.

“It’s by no means assured but there’s a different sense, a kind of willingness on behalf of all the key players in the system to come together and talk about it and to realize it’s a shared responsibility.”

The Envisioning Equal Justice summit is designed to raise the access to justice profile, creating a narrative that resonates with the public and politicians. 

Sheila Cameron

Sheila Cameron,
Actus Law, Moncton
Photo credit: Maurice Henri

It’s a story with too many sad endings, explains Cameron, a Moncton family lawyer and founder of Actus Law. In New Brunswick, legal costs “are up and legal aid support is down,” meaning more people — low income and middle class — now represent themselves in family court, causing delays, confusion and frustration.

Families are dealing with day-to-day issues like child support or custody yet having their files sit for six months or more, she says.

“Those people are living under constant stress and our understanding is that kids living under that amount of stress are not developing, not reaching their milestones the way they should be.”

A mom or dad might work all day, deal with their children at home and after everyone’s in bed, try to figure out the legal system. “Where’s the time for all that?” Cameron asks, noting that some people end up on stress leave or are forced onto social assistance where money and tension tightens.

The system is intimidating and there needs to be an accessible way for people “to assert their rights,” says Cameron. She recalls suing a local business owner trying to represent himself after his former spouse sought a change to child support payments. He eventually spoke directly to Cameron, telling her he was having a “godawful time” trying to fill out documents while court clerks were of no help.

“The guy was educated, well-spoken, ran a business, and looked like the type of person who could go into court and represent himself. But he found it a very unsatisfactory experience. I understand that. I have young lawyers who call me regularly because they can’t figure out what forms they’re supposed to file.” 

In Saskatchewan, Dodge encounters ongoing barriers as a supervising lawyer at Community Legal Assistance Services for Saskatoon Inner City (CLASSIC).

Imagine needing to raise $100 or $200 or be forced out of your apartment and onto the street, she says, a reality for the diverse group, mainly First Nations and Metis, who CLASSIC serves free of charge.

Clients typically deal with more than one issue, Dodge says, citing the case of a client who neither received her full social services benefits nor got them on time.

The bureaucratic delay with the single mother’s benefits led to exhausting layers of stress. First, the woman had to appeal to social services. Then the landlord, because the  rent was now in arrears, tried to evict her which meant attending a hearing to protect her housing. The woman’s daughter also had special needs. If evicted they might have to leave the neighbourhood school that met her educational requirements.

“And then Canada Revenue wasn’t issuing [the] child tax benefit that she needed to make ends meet. We had to provide advocacy for that . . . and so on and so on.”

CLASSIC offers legal assistance in 20 areas of law, including residential tenancies, criminal law, Indian residential school claims, wills and estates, civil matters, immigration and refugee issues. The problems can be daunting: in refugee matters, for example, people “literally running for their lives,” must complete complex government forms within days of their arrival.

Client anxiety levels are disturbing, Dodge says. “The stakes are high. They don’t know where their next meal is coming from for themselves or their child. They are facing the reality of the street, grasping for someone to help them.”

Lugtig, a lawyer at Manitoba Justice who was actively involved in getting the not-for-profit Legal Help Centre of Winnipeg opened in 2011, recognizes the difficulties of un­­­sophisticated people dealing with legal matters. She’s been in­volved with access to justice issues for more than 20 years, first as a social worker who practised “soft advocacy,” helping young people in trouble and new immigrants flustered by administrative rules and regulations.

“It was one of the reasons I went to law school; I found it interesting and important,” she says, explaining that when someone deals with a legal problem on their own and doesn’t know how to do it effectively, it creates a snowball effect that leads to more and bigger problems.

Sarah J. Lugtig

Sarah J. Lugtig,
Manitoba Justice, Winnipeg
Photo credit: Robert Tinker

“That’s fairly well documented,” Lugtig says. “If you can imagine a very stressful time in your life, the break-up of your family for example, and all those stresses and the legal ramifications, without getting help, it’s kind of mind boggling. So even very basic support can go a long way to help people deal with that.” 

Buckley, too, has spent her entire legal career interested in the issue. The access to justice initiative itself addresses several recommenda­tions she made to the CBA in Moving Forward on Legal Aid in 2010.

Until you have a legal problem it’s really hard to understand how important access to justice is, Buckley says. She contrasts that with health care where even the healthiest person understands what potentially could happen without equal access to health care.

“With legal problems we don’t tend to think that way, even though the statistics are very clear that about 70 to 80 per cent of people will have a problem for which there is a good legal solution sometime in their lives. They are not going to be prepared for it and the system isn’t really necessarily going to be there for them.”

The CBA has worried for a few decades about the growing problems in access to justice. In the 1960s and ’70s there was a commitment to increasing access to justice, to ensuring poor people, lower- and middle-income people, had access, especially when their fundamental interests were at stake, Buckley says.

“Access to justice, when we think of it most broadly, is that everyone has more or less equal access to legal remedies when they need them and legal assistance and legal information when they need them . . . that the whole system is easy to access, easy to navigate and as efficient as possible. For the CBA, the critical question still is that the most vulnerable and the most disadvantaged have greater access.”

"Families are dealing with day-to-day issues like child support or custody, yet having their files sit for six months or more..."

It will take a collective effort to overcome numerous barriers that include shrinking government funding and faint political support. Committee members say that nationally, many legal aid and pro bono programs are cobbled together. There is no comprehensive response to the legal needs of low-income people; instead they tend to be siloed responses from governments, community-based organizations and private practice. And with no minimum level of support, inequities across jurisdictions are widening.

Dodge, who received the CBA’s inaugural Legal Aid Leader Award in 2012, believes there’s a better path ahead.

“There are some strong legal aid programs that are providing access to justice,” she says. “There are some amazing public interest law organizations that are doing innovative and exciting access to justice work, in various spheres, both politically and community-based work.

“Even the fact that this committee can facilitate this dialogue in a national summit, with more voices coming together to strategize, shows we have an engaged public interest law community,” she says. “I’m seeing some strength there.”


Envisioning equal justice: Step by step

Through research and consultation, the access to justice initiative is working on building blocks and strategies that focus on these key objectives:

  • Foster greater public ownership of access to justice issues;
  • Develop a strategic framework for access to justice in Canada that includes a more refined practical definition of what it is, with measurable indicators, standards and metrics to evaluate progress;
  • Foster greater co-ordination of initiatives within the CBA strategic framework;
  • Carry out research and consultations, develop  and revise CBA policies to support improvements in the public and private delivery of legal services;
  • Develop tools for advocacy geared to improving publicly funded access to justice services, including legal aid.

Main strategies

  1. Develop building blocks for change

    These are priority areas that require more study or new and innovative solutions. They are:
    • developing access to justice metrics;
    • national minimum standards for legal aid;
    • future directions for legal aid delivery;
    • tension at the border between pro bono and legal aid;
    • underexplored alternatives for increasing access to justice for the middle class;
    • developing advocacy tools to support a national advocacy campaign.
  2. Change the conversation
    • The Envisioning Equal Justice Summit: Building Justice for Everyone will provide a national platform to build public engagement, nurture relationships, gather information and highlight innovative work.
  3. Co-ordinate and share information
    • The committee will take on a strategic co-ordination and information-sharing role by gathering national and international information about access to justice initiatives;
    • An annual overview of current Canadian initiatives will be released, with special attention to the most innovative;
    • Quarterly highlights will be provided on the CBA’s website.

Michael Dempster is a freelance writer based in Calgary.
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