Everyone agrees there’s an access to justice problem in this country; the only question is how to fix it. That’s where it gets complicated.
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So what's next?
The Envisioning Equal Justice summit ended Saturday in Vancouver with a summary of what lies ahead for the CBA's National Standing Committee on Access to Justice: consolidating comments from attendees (due May 15) into a report of findings and recommendations that will be presented in August to the Canadian Legal Conference in Saskatoon.
But everybody in the room understood that isn't enough. As committee co-chair John Simms said, the goal is not to write a report; an idea is not an innovation. There's a real need to create the urgency for widespread reform and change the dialogue on access to justice.
Not an easy task. There are many problems with the existing system. Legal aid funding is an issue as the prevailing political winds blow in the direction of austerity, not just in Canada but around the world. Eligibility requirements shut out many of our lowest earners: for example, as Karen Hudson, executive director of the Nova Scotia Legal Aid Commission pointed out, in her province, a full-time worker who gets minimum wage at Tim Hortons makes too much money to qualify for assistance.
But the problems do not simply lie within the system. A cultural divide exists that keeps people from accessing justice just as surely as funding cutbacks do. And that divide is between the people who are part of the system -- judges, lawyers, court administrators -- and the most marginalized members of our society. It is based on language and education barriers and a fear of authorities that is rooted in culture and experience.
Solving the funding issues will require, among other things, helping the public understand the value of legal aid: in fact, the point needs to be made that underfunding legal aid is a false economy, Hudson said, pointing to research out of Texas that shows every dollar invested in legal aid will generate $7.42 for the economy.
Bridging the cultural divide could mean bringing in trusted community groups to act as links between individuals and the legal system, much in the same way that groups that help abused women did, said Patricia Hughes, executive director of the Law Commission of Ontario. That approach would help, but still requires training and access to resources.
The sheer scope of the work ahead can seem daunting. But Melina Buckley left the attendees with a ray of hope and a personal plan for action.
"Think systemically and act locally," she urged attendees. "Every time people come into contact with people in system, it's an opportunity to empower them; reinforce inequality or create equality. "I hope you use every moment to do the latter and not the former." It's a start -- a big one.
Beverley Spencer is editor-in-chief of National Magazine and executive editor of CCCA Magazine