Driving Change in Access to Justice

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.


  1. Karen, I think that you’ve put your finger on something that is quite important and that permeates the legal profession – not just in Canada but also in the US.

    I would add to your observations that not obtaining information and feedback from users contradicts the strong advice given to people seeking to create new or improve existing products and services in other fields – advice to “get out of the building.” That is, advice to talk to the people you anticipate will be using your services, because if you are not talking to them, you are most likely wasting your time as you will end up developing something that suits you but not the intended users. (I guess that loops back to your comment about stakeholders having too much skin in the game – the status quo suits them).

    The legal profession presents a specific challenge, though. It’s that many people who are not lawyers (that is, potential users) – are either intimidated or bored (or both) as soon as they hear the word “legal” – they either assume that they can’t understand or, for whatever reason, choose to not make the intellectual effort to understand. This is unfortunate as it makes learning how to meet their needs that much more difficult. That being said, I think it is our responsibility as lawyers to try to overcome that bias in order to have real dialogues with users of legal services in order to better understand their needs.

    England and Wales have developed an interesting response to the question of how to obtain user input. One of the many changes that came with the 2007 Legal Services Act was the creation of the Legal Services Consumer Panel. This is a panel of 8 “lay” person (non-lawyers) whose mandate is to represent the interests of consumers of legal services in giving advice to the Legal Services Board (and indirectly to the other legal services regulators). Of course these 8 lay people cannot do their jobs if they are intimidated or bored by things labelled “legal.” In essence, in England and Wales they have codified the necessity to obtain user input.

  2. Though the Legal Services Consumer Panel is a nice gesture in the right direction, there is no legal obligation for the Legal Services Board to adhere to their advice. As the Panel’s website states: “The Panel has legal powers to publish its advice and the Legal Services Board has a legal duty to explain its reasons when it disagrees with the advice that we publish.” The effectiveness of the Panel is yet to be determined. Let’s hope that the Legal Services Board doesn’t see them as a nice front or decoration while continuing with the status quo.