Why is the idea of asking service users what they need in terms of access to justice so challenging to those working in the justice system?
This is the question that I was asking myself as I participated a recent workshop on enhancing access to justice in the area of family law, coordinated by the Manitoba Law Foundation and facilitated by John Paul Boyd.
Participants represented a range of justice system service providers and included some community voices as well. Working in small groups, we brainstormed the obstacles to access to justice and ways to provide better supports to those involved in family breakdown and conflict.
When I suggested to the larger group that not knowing what service users want or need is a significant obstacle, another participant agreed and went even further, suggesting that failing to do so smacked of paternalism and that solutions arrived at without such consultation would fail to address the real issues. While I agreed, it was clear that it wasn’t the perspective of most in the room. The idea was pronounced “interesting” and the conversation continued without addressing the point, still focused on what the justice system could do for users.
We were also tasked with identifying stakeholders in family justice, from court staff and judges to lawyers, mediators, accountants, psychologists and more. Through that discussion, it became clear how much those working in the system have to gain from maintaining the status quo, or some variation thereof.
This was something of an “Aha!” moment for me. Finding ways to more effectively and efficiently address the actual needs of families in breakdown and conflict has potential to seriously upset the status quo and negatively impact many who are invested in a conflict-ridden and expensive court-based system.
Maybe those within the system are reluctant to ask service users what they need and how better to build dispute resolution supports that meet their needs because those system stakeholders have too much “skin in the game.”
Self-interest motivates us all and manifests in every environment. The self-interested voices of lawyers, judges, court staff and service providers easily drown out the self-interested voices of system users, if they are even given opportunity to voice their concerns. Those within the system each have interest in protecting their current and future income, as well as an identity tied to the system, as it exists and in many cases, bring an inherent resistance to change.
This doesn’t mean change can’t happen; but it can only happen if our biases in favour of the status quo are acknowledged and fears based in self-interest are addressed.
Change is possible even in the family law systems already in place, but it must be effectively managed to address the interests of all the stakeholders.
Most importantly though, change needs to be driven by the expressed needs of those who will benefit most from abandoning the status quo. In the area of family justice, families are the potential winners if we can successfully deliver appropriate, effective and accessible supports that address their actual near and expected long term needs. With system user input, foundational change to systems can succeed; without it, we’re just applying another coat of paint to a crumbling structure.