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.
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?
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.
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.
Effective communication is the bread and butter of legal practice, but how many lawyers are really good at it? The answer might surprise you.
As Ann Macaulay reports in Your Practice this month, one-third of all legal malpractice claims filed with the Lawyers’ Professional Indemnity Company stem from lack of communication between lawyers and clients.
Why the disconnect? After reading Susan Cain’s excellent book, Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, it occurred to me that personality might play a role. Yes, you can work to improve your skills at effective communication, but your personality influences your communication style. And while we can’t change our personalities, we can learn how they help or hinder our efforts to get our message across to clients, co-workers, and other people in our lives. One of the crucial factors is whether we are introverts or extroverts.
As Cain explains, the key difference between introverts and extroverts lies in our response to stimulation. The introvert prefers low-key environments, needs time to recharge after being around others, is careful, focused and a good listener. The extrovert loves to talk, is energized by being around others and actually becomes bored and listless in the absence of stimulation.
Like everyone, lawyers struggle to communicate with people who have the opposite personality. But addressing this communication gap is vital to effective communications.
Martha Newman of Top Lawyer Coach recommends for example, that extroverts remember introverts need to quietly focus on one thing at a time and that they do their best thinking alone. Understanding this means the extrovert is less likely to get frustrated that the individual is not forthcoming or is difficult to deal with. Introverts are encouraged to focus on their strengths and speak up when an issue is important.
Skill-building is important. But like most things, efforts rooted in self-knowledge will bear the most fruit.
Beverley Spencer is editor-in-chief of National Magazine and executive editor of CCCA Magazine