Defining Civil Justice

[Written with Bradley Albrecht]

Since 1998, the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice has developed a number of online resources and databases which are designed to increase understanding about the civil justice system, and ultimately to improve access to civil and family justice. My last article focused on the Inventory of Reforms, which, alongside our Clearinghouse, is designed to provide greater access to information on the civil justice system and civil justice reform initiatives.

In all of our work at the Forum we have found that there is a real need to promote a stronger shared understanding and common vocabulary to describe concepts in the civil justice system. The concepts dealt with in our on-line resources are abstract, complex and often represented by multiple synonymous terms. A perfect example is the concept that we refer to as ‘expedited litigation’, which has at least seven equivalent terms in civil procedure rules in jurisdictions across the country. As well, terms like ‘case management’ are used in subtly different ways in different jurisdictions. 

Civil Justice Thesaurus

To address this, we are working to create a new on-line guide to civil justice terminology, the Civil Justice Thesaurus. We see this as a tool that can potentially serve both the legal community and the public by providing a conceptual map of core concepts in the civil justice system and helping to establish a common vocabulary to share experiences.

A mockup of a Thesaurus record for “expedited litigation” is shown below (click on the image to enlarge it). It includes a definition that explains the subject in detail, while under the “Use for” heading we see the variation in terminology used across the country. Also included are links to related terms (in this case two similar terms needing to be distinguished), broader terms and narrower terms, all of which would allow the user to browse the collection of terminology in a very natural way. We would also incorporate recent reforms in this area from our Inventory and relevant publications from our Clearinghouse. The idea is that each subject page pulls all of this information together to become a dynamic portal into one aspect of the civil justice system. 

We imagine students and professors of civil procedure will find this an invaluable tool, and to the extent that everyone concerned with improving access to justice is learning and applying new information and experiences, the Thesaurus will have very broad application. 

Search Thesauri

The idea for the Thesaurus grew out of a desire to find more meaningful ways for users to search our Inventory and Clearinghouse. To address this, our former Librarian, Michael Lines, began the research into creating a civil justice system thesaurus with funding from the Canadian Association of Law Libraries. This foundational research examined existing legal classification schemes to establish the need for a thesaurus, explored possible applications for such a thesaurus, and ultimately culminated in the creation of a draft thesaurus.

In the context of Information Science, a thesaurus is a way of structuring a collection of subjects to allow an indexer or searcher to find the terms that best match the concept they are looking for. For any given term, the thesaurus will include a scope note (SN) that describes in detail how the subject heading is used. In this example we can see that “legal service centres”, a somewhat nebulous term, has been defined very broadly as “Centres serving the public which may provide a variety of legal services including information, advice, referral, or help finding a lawyer.”

Terms in the thesaurus are organized hierarchically, so for example, we see that a “legal service centre” is described here as a type of “legal service provider”, the broader term (BT). The narrower terms (NT) “clinics” and “legal information centres” are both specific types of “legal service centres”. Related terms (RT) link concepts that aren’t hierarchically related, so here, for example, the service provider, “legal service centres”, is related to the thing provided, “legal services”. And finally, the thesaurus includes synonyms, which serve as alternate entry points. In this case, someone looking up “justice access centres” would be directed to use “legal service centres” instead (‘use for’/UF).

A thesaurus is a tool that can be used both by the cataloguer and the end user, so that terms are applied consistently when indexing and then used accurately when searching. For example, integrating the Thesaurus into our Clearinghouse and Inventory as a public search tool would allow users to search for “unrepresented litigants” or “pro se litigants” and have both of those synonyms redirected to the term documents are indexed under, “self-represented litigants”.

Incorporating scope notes helps clarify terms with context-specific definitions that may not be clear to the user, such as “discovery” or “assessment”. Scope notes also help the user distinguish between similar terms such as “summary trial” and “summary judgment”. Working in conjunction with the scope notes, the rich relations between terms allow the user to browse to the subject that best matches their query. For example, a user might initially look up “cost of justice”, but then determine based on that thesaurus entry that the related term “legal fees” is a better search term for what they are looking for.

Current Work

At this stage in the project, we have a ‘working draft’ thesaurus that includes 333 preferred terms and 72 synonyms. Significant work remains to be done to expand and improve this draft, but for now we have implemented it as a cataloguing tool for our Clearinghouse and Inventory.

The challenges at this stage of the research focus primarily on how to improve and expand the content of the thesaurus. Bilingual development is an ongoing challenge which goes far beyond simple translation. We are also exploring how to best develop a collaboration to capture input from civil justice system stakeholders, legal information experts and the public, to improve and expand the draft thesaurus and refine the design of the public interface.

If you would like any further information, have any advice or would be interested in working with us as we plan the next stages in the development of the thesaurus, we would be delighted to hear from you.

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