Law touches many aspects of daily life. We skim and (hastily) agree to user agreements in order to stream music and videos online, sign lease agreements for housing, hydro contracts for hot water and electricity, and employment contracts that outline terms and conditions for work. The everyday legal problems landscape is rife with disputes with employers and neighbors, arguments over money owed, contentious divorces, and many other civil justice problems. The recent economic and social pressures created by the COVID-19 crisis have certainly not improved things. Everyday legal problems carry legal ramifications and profound personal, financial and social consequences. Much of what we do as well as how we do it, however innocuous, is tethered in some way to law. As has been said many times, we live our lives in the shadow of the law.
This understanding of the space that law, and in particular civil justice, occupies in our daily lives is instructive. The protections available through the law, our ability to understand them, access them and enforce them are all inextricably linked to individual well-being and social and economic development.
The notion of law as a thread that runs through our daily lives applies globally. Progress on each of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) – the objectives deemed necessary by the global community for the improvement of people’s lives, communities and the environment – rely in part on legal protections. Gender equality (SDG 5), for example, depends to an extent on the enforcement of laws to prevent gender-based discrimination. Progress towards achieving Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG 6), Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12), and Climate Action (SDG 13) demand changes in behavior by individuals and companies, supported by government efforts that promote and sanction better practices and processes. Through SDG 16.3, equal access to justice is also separately recognized as an important target for sustainable development. On the whole, as the Task Force on Justice suggests, facilitating better access to justice will impact our ability to advance the health, safety and overall betterment of people’s lives and communities and make meaningful progress possible for the UN’s SDGs.
The Importance of Tracking Access to Civil Justice Improvements
A roadmap for sustainable development that includes a call for equal access to justice is significant. As an important step, following the September 2015 adoption of the UN’s SDGs, an SDG Global Indicator Framework was created. The purpose of such a framework is to dictate the metrics that will help assess progress on each SDG target. As pertains specifically to SDG 16.3 – Promote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all – the initial indicators that were adopted to measure progress on this target focused on criminal justice improvements, leaving a significant civil justice gap.
The interconnectedness of civil justice with everyday occurrences in life offers some indication of the prevalence of civil justice problems worldwide, as well as what would be missed in the absence of civil justice indicators. Almost a quarter of justice problems globally relate to disputes over housing, land or neighbors; almost a third pertain to money and debt or problems as consumers; one in five people have legal problems that concern public services, and one out of twelve relate to employment problems. These and other types of civil justice problems often disproportionately impact vulnerable groups, women, minority populations and the poor.
Indicators that measure equal access to civil justice are critical for tracking access to justice improvements related to the vast majority of legal problems experienced by people worldwide. They also provide insight on access to civil justice advancements that support economic and social development.
The Open Society Justice Initiative, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Praia Group on Governance Statistics, several UN agencies and others have recently worked to address this omission. A new civil justice indicator (16.3.3), which examines (1) access to avenues for advice, assistance or representation for civil justice problems, and (2) the ability to resolve civil justice problems, was proposed, submitted and approved at the 51st session of the United Nations Statistical Commission in March 2020.
What Do We Currently Know about the State of Access to Civil Justice in Canada?
For more than a decade, the World Justice Project (WJP), through its Rule of Law Index, has offered one of the world’s most recognized resources for measuring rule of law indicators and for mapping national data and trends in access to criminal and civil justice. Building on accepted everyday legal needs survey methodologies which have been used in many countries around the world, the methodological approach employed for data collection for the Rule of Law Index – in-country household surveys in addition to expert surveys— reflects the type of people-centered research approach recommended for gathering data for the new SDG 16.3.3 civil justice indicator.
The recently published 2020 WJP Rule of Law Index offers insights into the state of civil justice in Canada independently, as well as relative to high income countries and countries within Canada’s region.
Canada’s overall score and global ranking remains unchanged since 2019. Overall scores, factor scores and the indicators for each factor included in the 2020 Rule of Law Index range from 0 to 1, with 1 being the highest score. Canada’s overall 2020 score is 0.81 and Canada’s global rank is 9. In the context of the UN’s 2015 adoption of the SDGs, this could be seen as a signal of some overall improvement. In 2015 Canada’s overall country score was 0.78 and its country rank was 14. In subsequent years, up to the present, the score has consistently been 0.81 with changes in rank from 14 in 2015 to 12 in 2016 and up to 9 in 2017 – 2020 indices.
Of the 8 factors that contribute to the Rule of Law Index country scores, civil justice has consistently been the area where Canada has received the lowest scores. There are seven indicators that contribute to Canada’s civil justice factor score of 0.70 in 2020, which places Canada 12 out of 24 countries regionally and 19 out of 37 high income countries.
Figure I: WJP 2020 Rule of Law Index Civil Justice Indicators and Scores for Canada
These numbers show that Canada still has significant work to do to improve its civil justice system. Impediments to accessible, cost-effective, fair and timely avenues to resolve civil justice disputes negatively impact individuals and businesses, and also hamper overall social and economic progress.
Canada’s lowest-scoring civil justice indicator – no unreasonable delay— offers particular cause for concern, especially in light of current world events around COVID-19 and what is assumed will be a significant increase in demand for legal help in the coming weeks and months.
In this shifting justice landscape, as the legal community responds to a new normal, perhaps we will end up in a place where, in order to better accommodate working remotely, and to deal with the challenges of an increased demand for assistance with certain types of civil justice problems, there will be an increased appetite and openness to change in the legal system. Specifically, we may see: less resistance from the legal profession to regulatory reforms that could open legal markets to new players (particularly including online supports); shifts from less efficient paper-based systems to online platforms and methods of service delivery; and an overall readiness to explore and embrace technology and innovative strategies to address legal problems swiftly, effectively and fairly. Various innovation strategies have been increasingly contemplated as potential ways to improve efficiency and reduce delays within our civil justice systems. In the long run, civil justice indicators such as those available through the WJP Rule of Law Index and the indicators that have been proposed to track UN SDG 16.3 will offer important future insights into the legal community’s response at this time and whether it has fully grasped the importance of acting now.
By Lisa Moore
Director, Canadian Forum on Civil Justice (CFCJ)
 See Task Force on Justice, Justice for All – The Report of the Task Force on Justice (New York: Center on International Cooperation, 2019) at 29, online: Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies <https://www.justice.sdg16.plus/report>.
 For the complete list of UN Sustainable Development Goals, see United Nations, “Sustainable Development Goals”, online: United Nations <https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs>.
 See Task Force on Justice, Justice for All – The Report of the Task Force on Justice, supra note 1.
 See UNDP, OECD, et al, “16.3.3 Indicator Proposal – Access to Civil Justice” (March 2020), online: World Justice Project <https://worldjusticeproject.org/sites/default/files/documents/16.3.3%20Flyer_Access%20to%20Civil%20Justice_final_en.pdf>.
 See World Justice Project, World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2020 (March 2020), online: WJP <https://worldjusticeproject.org/sites/default/files/documents/WJP-ROLI-2020-Online_0.pdf>.