Building the Evidence Base for Access to Justice

The final report from the Envisioning Equal Justice initiative has just been released. I’ve only just had a chance to skim it, but in doing so I have noted a continuous thread throughout the report suggesting that it is essential, if we are to move forward effectively on the issue of access to justice, that we know what we know and what we don’t yet know. In other words, we need to establish a solid base of evidence that will support the actions we take to increase access to justice.

The report writers point out that:

We know little about the relative effectiveness and efficiency of various service delivery models, legal information, assistance and representation, or dispute resolution mechanisms across different types of legal matters, and how to match processes and legal services to the nature and intensity of the legal dispute. At this time, we do know that we fall far behind the health and education systems in our commitment to and capacity for evidence-based decision making. It contributes to our justice innovation deficit. (page 49)

In discussing what is needed to promote innovation within the profession, the writers go on to note that:

Our knowledge base is very thin. We don’t know enough about what people want from the justice system and we have limited capacity to measure public satisfaction with service delivery in the justice sector. We know even less about how to effectively meet needs. (page 139)

These are important messages from this report. If we don’t know where the gaps in legal service delivery are found, how can we expect to fill them? Without knowing the nature of the unmet needs, how can we effectively innovate to meet those needs? And given limited resources in justice system budgets, proceeding in an evidence-based, cost-efficient and targeted way is essential if we are to effectively address the gaps and meet the needs.

More and better data is needed ongoing to ensure that the steps taken towards increasing access to justice are responsive to the identified legal needs of Canadians and that our progress toward that goal can be measured.

Meanwhile, the report writers conclude, our ignorance is no excuse for a lack of action:

This lack of knowledge cannot be an excuse for inaction. Nor can we focus only on what is currently measured or easy to measure and ignore what cannot be measured or what we have chosen not to measure. It is detrimental and wrong-headed to suggest a lack of evidence justifies inaction, where it is obvious that action should be taken. Action is needed on many fronts, including developing and maintaining a stronger knowledge base. (page 49)

The Reaching Equal Justice Report sets numerous targets, including the following specifically in relation to developing a firmer evidence base:

By 2020, the first annual access to justice metrics report is released; by 2030, this report is comprehensive.

By 2025, Canada has a sustainable access to justice research agenda with four minimum components:

a) available, high quality data that supports empirical study of effectiveness of measures to ensure access to justice

b) a central independent research organization that assumes responsibility for developing and coordinating the required data sources and research activities

c) effective mechanisms through which researchers and people in the field collaborate and coordinate research activities, and

d) ongoing commitment to and adoption of best practices in access to justice research.

By 2020, the amount of access to justice research conducted in Canada has doubled.

For each of the targets set out, the report also includes proposed milestones as well as specific action items that flesh out how the targets will be met.

This seems to me to be a good start.

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