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.