The Chief Justice of British Columbia, Lance S.G. Finch, addressed a meeting of the B.C. Branch of the Canadian Bar Association recently on the subject of access to justice, singling out the high cost of legal services as a prominent, if not new, obstacle to that goal. He said:
…I would call [the high cost of legal services ]the elephant in the room. Everyone knows it’s there, but no one wants to talk about it. I think it is time to open the conversation.
… I respectfully suggest it is time for the bar to address this question openly. It touches on the legal profession’s ability to remain independent and self-governing, and it concerns the public interest in access to justice.
The full text of his speech [PDF] is available on the B.C. Courts website.
The Chief Justice identified a number of systemic factors that have served to increase demand for, but restrict the supply of, legal services: lawyers’ monopoly on practice; population growth in B.C. of 16%, compared to growth of 4% in law society membership, in the last fifteen years; static law school enrolment despite large growth in population; the lack of suitable articling positions.
If the profession as a whole doesn’t take steps to remedy the problem, he foresees: a threat to self-regulation from government; increased competition from other players in the legal services market; and a loss of the profession’s moral standing.
The Chief Justice then outlined a number of steps he believes the profession might take in response, but essentially left with the profession the need to come up with:
… a solution to the unacceptable reality of citizens, and especially litigants, going without legal advice and representation because of their cost.
My own sense of it, for what it’s worth, is that the legal profession as a body, rather like a great ocean-going tanker, is simply too weighty, shall we say, to be turned with any speed at all. And inside the monopoly, individual firms will likely not have enough incentive to break with the traditions that have served them well. I doubt, too, that the provincial governments can be persuaded to increase the number of law schools sufficiently to supply the demand in time. Though, the prospect of cheaper (to the government) private law schools might be attractive.
The upshot of too little too late, as suggested by Justice Finch, will likely be the loss of self-government and the breaking up of the monopoly.
[hat tip: @jordan_law21]