Access to Justice? Yes in My Back Yard.

The past few months have seen some inspiring firsts for access to justice in Ontario. Ryerson University’s Legal Innovation Zone (LIZ) launched the Ontario Access to Justice Challenge with support from the Ministry of the Attorney General. The challenge brings an entrepreneurial approach to access to justice improvements by offering seed funding to six start-up companies that “are building products and solutions that challenge the status quo of legal services” in Ontario. It’s exciting to think about this new terrain of “start-up justice” and encouraging to see government take such a proactive role in its advancement.

Lakehead University’s Bora Laskin Faculty of Law recently held its first graduation ceremony in Thunder Bay. This first charter class received their degrees from Canada’s first Indigenous law school dean, Professor Angelique Eaglewoman and completed a program with mandatory Aboriginal Law classes. Of the 58 graduates, six were Indigenous and many are beginning their legal careers in service of their own northern communities.

These instances capture the spirit of the term “innovation” as inspired departures from the established path with an emphasis on new tools and customized approaches. While a thorough rethink can yield tremendous value, sometimes a refresh can also work wonders. It’s not mandatory for innovation to be “”disruptive””. In fact, it is often the small, subtle shifts that deliver significant impact.

A few months ago, I wrote about TAG’s work with librarians. With support from the Southern Ontario Library Service (SOLS), we surveyed librarians across the province to learn more about their day to day reality as access to justice agents. What we learned was illuminating and presented in this info-graphic. Librarians reported that their patrons most often have problems with accessing government benefits, housing, separation or divorce, employment and wills. Challenges from the librarian perspective related to resources — not enough time for in-depth conversations with patrons, limited knowledge about where to refer patrons for help and digital divide issues such as low rates of internet literacy among patrons.

When I first began to review the data, my cynical expectation was that librarians would have an explicit NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) position on the access to justice issue. That yes, patrons did come to the branch for legal help and could they please be redirected post haste? Rest assured that I was sufficiently contrite upon learning that 83 per cent of respondents were eager to receive training that would improve access to justice for their patrons. They saw this training as a natural extension of their community service work and were keen to preserve their branches as a gateway to legal information. Our survey concluded with a link to Community Legal Education Ontario’s (CLEO) webinar titled Helping Library Users Find Good Legal Information. Our efforts to coordinate with CLEO and the keen interest from librarians saw a near 400 per cent increase in registrations. We look forward to building on this momentum and replicating this type of outreach with other professional groups that are on the access to justice frontlines.

In a recent piece for The Globe and Mail, Bishop University English Professor Jessica Riddell pushed back against the outdated or “retro” image of librarians that many maintain. She defended these socially and most often physically accessible spaces as “knowledge hubs where people of all ages can seek out opportunities, collaborate, create, and learn”. She also noted that “public libraries uphold values of inclusivity, social and cultural literacy, and equal access to knowledge — all key values of a vibrant and thriving democracy.” Certainly all key elements to advancing access to justice.

The commitment to social connection and information sharing is often reflected in a library’s built environment. Last year, the Halifax Central Library was shortlisted as a Building of the Year in the ‘Civics and Community’ category and this year it was among the winners of the Governor General’s Medals in Architecture. The design is lauded for its early user engagement which resulted in a “community gathering place that responds to the diversity of its users, accommodating many more activities than the traditional library.” The ambitious project has seen record numbers of users who view it as a community hub and destination for civic resources. It’s an example of how cross-sector expertise can be harnessed to serve the public in an informed and meaningful way.

This is, of course, the ideal — when resources align with inspired designs. Many of our librarian respondents noted the need for more resources in order to deliver high-quality services. There is no getting around the fact that funding is a key issue across sectors, but there is still much that can be done through smart partnerships that leverage existing resources in new ways.

Access to justice improvements require diversifying the participants in the conversation by directly engaging with the public. Connecting with new collaborators who can provide insights from the front lines is central to this approach. Big ideas are crucial to the big changes so desperately needed to improve access to justice but there is merit in thinking small to do big. Our work with librarians showed us what they already knew — that we have more allies than we realize.



Sabreena Delhon is the Manager of The Action Group on Access to Justice (TAG) at the Law Society of Upper Canada. Follow her @sabreenadelhon.


  1. Here in BC we run the LawMatters program out of Courthouse Libraries BC. For several years now we’ve seen great rewards supporting public libraries as invaluable intermediaries in the mission to enhance justice access. We look forward to sharing mutual lessons with you! Thanks for the post.

  2. While it is hard to fault the enthusiasm for access to justice in this post, when it comes to whether the initiatives being undertaken are likely to deliver access to justice, I am reminded of this post that landed in my inbox today: While the example used may not ideally illustrate the point being made (as the comments reflect), the point is solid. For good intentions to result in the desired outcomes, very good analysis is required, and sometimes, some very stubborn rocks need to be turned over. I’ve started trying to pry some of the rocks lodged in the legal arena by blogging at My attention is usually focussed on education systems, but many lessons are transferrable across systems – including to library systems.

    In my own journey of self-representation, I have indeed observed that libraries have much to offer, and I can’t speak highly enough of the help the BC Courthouse Library staff have provided both to me and to other patrons with whom I have seen them interact. That these resources, sustained by law societies for lawyer use, have been made available to the public is perhaps the most meaningful and least acknowledged access-to-justice initiative there is.

    But you have also referenced public libraries here, and on that topic, I’ve noticed exactly the opposite trend. Rather than simply maintaining an excellent resource and providing competent guidance to it, too many librarians have been seduced by the trappings of technology, the lure of becoming “knowledge hubs,” and getting into the spotlight as “community gathering places.” It is not library users who deemed the simple curatorial role “retro;” that came from librarians themselves who wanted to jazz up their image, possibly as a new way to attract funding.

    But ironically, if that funding has been forthcoming for snazzy new buildings and new roles, it is not enhancing library collections or access to them. The Halifax Library, en route to a new building, jettisoned some 100,000 volumes of material, if my information is correct, and the Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch has done away with in-person service desks and now forces users to navigate a labyrinth of technology to access a librarian. These changes mean that the institution’s capacity to function as a hub for access to justice is severely limited.

    One of the topics I explore in my blog is whether access to justice or just its illusion is being gained with all the initiatives, reports, committees, and funding. The same question should always be asked when fundamental change is sought, including of library systems. Until service recipients rather than providers are getting excited about the changes, I’m afraid the possibility that increased “access” is actually just increased organizational self-aggrandizement has to be considered.