I hope JP Boyd was right when he recently suggested there is a growing fatigue with the subject of access to justice in Canada. Boyd has recently launched a blog on the subject (lauded here on Slaw) that focuses on concrete steps lawyers and other stakeholders can take to increase access to justice in small but significant ways.
If there is growing weariness, I expect some of that is generated by those on the frontlines who continue to slog forward while waiting for those in governments and courts to finish “exploring initiatives” and start funding and implementing initiatives that actually do increase access to justice.
In Manitoba, there are efforts underway, though with no apparent urgency. In late June, Manitoba Courts issued a news release and held a press conference outlining the actions they are taking to achieve greater access to justice. Some of the steps being taken or considered to enhance access to justice through Manitoba Courts include:
- In the area of family law and child protection work, initiatives will be explored which recognize that the adversarial system may not always be the best way to resolve these matters.
- In the area of criminal law, initiatives will be explored with respect to the possible reform of preliminary inquiries, which will include reviewing the existing system which currently adds many months of delay to the final resolution of the matter.
- In the area of civil law, initiatives will be explored which emphasize “proportionality” as a reference point for maximizing access to justice.
- In all three areas of the law, initiatives will be explored to address delay issues which often arise because of unwieldy processes.
- Public access to court information will be improved with the continuing development of the new Manitoba Courts website, found at www.manitobacourts.mb.ca.
- The ‘Cameras in the Courtroom’ pilot project which began in April, 2014 will continue and evolve.
This is hardly an action packed list. “Exploring initiatives” that do this or that sounds rather a lot like “Review File” on a lawyer’s bill. It’s hard to say whether thinking about something, whether individually or in a committee really amounts to an action step, though of course sober thought is an important first step and often better than rushing off in all directions.
Meanwhile, those working on the frontlines are dealing with increased demand for services and reduced or static budgets. Working every day at the edge of the access to justice gap is rewarding in many ways, but not financially. This is where burnout and fatigue are probably most evident. The demand for their help continues to rise, while the resources available to deliver that help are fixed, or in some cases, diminishing.
Many of the frontline access to justice organizations, in Manitoba, are funded through the Manitoba Law Foundation, with the limited income earned from investments of lawyer’s trust account income (IOLTA). With interest rates at low levels for many years now, IOLTA incomes remain historically low and law foundations across the country are considering how best to allocate scarce resources to organizations on the frontlines of access to justice. These are established organizations that are mostly underfunded or not funded at all by government, including: Legal Aid Manitoba, Public Interest Law Centre, Community Legal Education Association, Community Unemployed Help Centre, Legal Help Centre, Pro Bono Students Canada and Manitoba’s law libraries.
If you’re not on the frontlines but are getting tired of hearing the cries for access to justice, you have a few options:
- Subscribe to and read Access to Justice in Canada for practical tips on what you can do;
- Volunteer your time with your local pro bono organization;
- Give to your local pro bono organization. An amount as little as the equivalent of one billable hour from every practising Canadian lawyer would make a tremendous difference to the budgets of these organizations across the country;
- Get involved in advocating for increased funding to access to justice work in your jurisdiction.
Until real progress becomes evident, lawyers must continue to advocate, whether with their time, their dollars or their voices, for access to justice for all Canadians. Getting tired of it only means we’ve still got work to do.