The Power of Perspectives

The Canadian Bar Association

Beverley Spencer

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Why a community approach to access to justice is needed

By Beverley Spencer April 26, 2013 26 April 2013

Maria Campbell's first encounter with the justice system is seared into her memory.

When she was a 6-year-old living in an isolated trapping community in northern Saskatchewan, a young RCMP officer bribed her with an O'Henry bar to tell him where her father kept his meat. He spent six months in jail; the meat intended to feed the community for the winter was confiscated, and she and her pregnant mother were left to snare rabbits in the bush to feed themselves and the rest of the family until her father came home.

She is a Metis elder, a community advocate and activist, a professor and a film-maker; a self-described "privileged" individual who flatly admits to still having a great fear of police and the justice system. Her message to the opening plenary of CBA's Envisioning Equal Justice summit was twofold: Changing the system requires involving the community and recognizing what it can contribute to the discussion. It also means taking a holistic approach to change that involves looking at the challenges people face: "It doesn't matter how good judges and lawyers are if you don't have enough money to feed your kids and you have to sleep in your car in winter."

Reciprocity has to be at the heart of these efforts, Campbell says. She objects to the use of the word "marginalized" to describe communities seeking access to justice. Using that language creates barriers between people and makes those seeking help feel powerless. Both sides have things to share; for example, she said, at a Saskatoon legal clinic, law students and community members are brought together to educate one another. "Reciprocity has to be the essence of what we do; if I'm always taking that doesn't empower me. We can teach each other all kinds of things."

She also noted that she was the only community representative at the summit, suggesting future discussions would benefit from more community involvement.

Advocates also have to understand that the conditions of poverty are worsening. She see different types of poverty emerging: young couples with children who would have been middle class 20 years ago are now homeless. In one case she knows, one partner makes minimum wage, the other slightly more, and they can keep their children fed, clothed and in school, but can't afford rent.

The situation in 40 years "won't be pretty" if these issues aren't addressed, she said.

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Voices on justice

By Beverley Spencer April 26, 2013 26 April 2013

Some sobering reflections on people's perceptions of the justice system from community consultations conducted by the CBA's Standing Committee on Access to Justice:

Unless you have lots of money, you cannot access justice.

The good old dollar defines what our legal rights are.

The richer you are the more you get away with.

You're guilty until proven innocent as far as I'm concerned.

I feel alone and I don't know who I'm supposed to contact.

I'm a victim of the system as well as a victim of my abuser.

It's too hard. I guess all you can do is pray.

Justice is to protect us not to abuse us.

I feel intimidated and bullied by the legal system.

How should it work? Those interviewed envisioned a place that everyone would know about where people with legal issues could go to explain their situation. It would operate as a form of triage to put people on the right track. Other ideas: outreach and support for families at risk and making access to legal services as important as access to health care.

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Putting a face to the problem of access to justice

By Beverley Spencer April 26, 2013 26 April 2013

It is important to remember the human element in any discussion of access to justice.

As part of its work on A2J metrics, the CBA's Standing Committee on Access to Justice held a series of consultations across the country with marginalized community members. What emerged was an indictment of the legal system's ability to consistently meet the needs of the most vulnerable, resulting in deep skepticism about the system itself: People's inability to resolve their individual issues left them with a poor perception of the justice system: Legal rights are "just on paper"; justice systems "cannot be trusted"; justice is person-dependent; and justice systems are difficult to navigate, the consultations heard.

Here's one example: When community members were asked whether the law would protect them from abuses of power, or hold a person in authority accountable for breaking the rules, the most common response was laughter. . . They did not know how to make a complaint, they did not know where to go to make a complaint; there was not enough information about how to do it, they did not think they would be believed or taken seriously, they were intimidated and made to feel stupid and they were afraid to challenge the more powerful party. This is a profound disconnect with broad implications for society.

What happens to the quest for justice when people stop believing it exists?

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Poverty by the numbers

By Beverley Spencer April 26, 2013 26 April 2013

Some statistics illustrating the scope of poverty in Canada from the Envisioning Equal Justice Summit in Vancouver:

• Out of Canada's population of 35 million, 3 million Canadians live in poverty.
• Approximately 900,000 Canadians use food banks each month.
• One in 5 children in Canada live in poverty.
• In 2008, 33 per cent of children living in poverty were from families that had at least one adult working the equivalent of a full-time job.
• The poverty rate of households with two or more workers is 12 per cent.
• 3.1-million households spend more than 30 per cent of their income on housing.
• British Columbia has the highest poverty rate in Canada.
• The cost of poverty to Canada has been estimated at $72- to $86-billion per year, or about 5 to 6 per cent of GDP.

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Who is responsible for meeting the need for legal services?

By Beverley Spencer April 26, 2013 26 April 2013

Who is responsible for meeting the need for legal services?

There has been a lot of finger-pointing in recent years: lawyers want government to pony up new money for legal aid while government looks to the profession to take on more pro bono work. Maybe the answer is a bit of both.

As the CBA's Standing Committee on Access to Justice says in its discussion paper on Pro Bono and Legal Aid it's not really fair to expect the legal profession to meet the huge demand alone. At the same time, when critical interests are at stake, who but government can ensure essential services are available through adequately funded legal aid program?

Finding an answer begins, the paper says, with holding a principled discussion about what are truly essential services and who should eligible, with legal aid plans adequately funded to serve the most vulnerable low-income population. Pro bono work and creative new solutions to legal service delivery can fill the gap. The 200-plus legal professionals assembled in Vancouver are now having that conversation at the Envisioning Equal Justice Summit, which began yesterday.

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