In 1998, after five years in private practice, I took a job in public legal education and was soon thereafter introduced to the problems many people have in accessing justice, whether in terms of working effectively with their lawyers, finding a lawyer, paying for a lawyer, or trying to address legal issues without the assistance of a lawyer.
Since that time, I’ve continued to work and volunteer in the non-profit legal sector, frequently with a focus on providing increased access to justice, at least for the lucky few. Next month I’m moving into an interim position directing a pro bono legal clinic. The workload there just keeps expanding.
Seventeen years later – encompassing most of my career, to date – the problems just keep growing. Fewer people are able to find and afford the services of a lawyer today than at that time. Legal Aid plans have been trimmed to the bare essentials. Countless online resources, court information booths, and DIY supports now supplement telephone and drop-in information services. More and more individuals are appearing in courts without legal representation.
I didn’t plan to make a career of access to justice work. Many of the changes required today, were known to be required 17 years ago or more, yet looking back, I can’t help but wonder at the lack of progress. Indeed, I am dismayed that despite steps forward, the access to justice sector faces a greater demand for services than ever before. And that demand just keeps on growing while resources remain stagnant or decline.
All of which brings me to wondering, what if…
- What if courts administration took seriously the well-founded complaints that their processes create barriers to justice and are, in many cases, much too complex and require significant overhaul?
- What if law schools prepared students to deliver legal services with the assistance of technological innovations and with clients’ needs at the centre of every interaction?
- What if law societies made it more economically feasible for lawyers to work on pro bono or in the access to justice sector by providing practice fee rebates or credits?
- What if ethics committees were required to consider the impact of proposed rule changes on access to justice for those of middle and low socioeconomic status?
- What if law reform commissions made enhancing access to justice a criterion in their deliberations and recommendations for changes to our laws?
- What if every judge and court staffer were sensitized to the myriad of issues facing self-representing litigants at every step of the legal process, from archaic document formatting requirements to inflexible scheduling to the attitudes of counsel opposing a SRL?
- What if all lawyers considered it their professional duty and obligation to provide legal services to those unable to afford to pay for those services?
- What if governments at each level recognized that unmet legal needs create a myriad of other problems for individuals, families, communities and businesses, with spiralling costs attached?
- What if the legal profession truly valued those who work everyday on the front lines of access to justice – whether in legal aid clinics, pro bono clinics, public legal education or the early resolution services sector?
What would you add to the What ifs?