Observers of the justice system and the legal profession, as well as writers of myriad reports by the Canadian Bar Association and others seeking to improve access to justice, all come to the same conclusion: to be successful, the system must be human-centred – arranged around and for the people it serves.
This should be a given – to be successful any enterprise has to think about what the people using its services need. Successful enterprises remove as many obstacles for users as possible, in order to provide a friction-free experience.
One of the frequent complaints from those who need legal services or try to use the justice system to resolve their legal problems, is that it’s not made for them. It’s difficult to navigate, hard to find the people who can help, and impossible to tell good advice from bad. They become confused and frustrated and many eventually conclude that the system is stacked against them – it’s set up to favour those with money or an inside track.
The pandemic has only exacerbated that perception: cutting off access to physical court houses and even libraries, where people could go to use computers, has barred access to vital sources of information for the groups who rely on them.
So what does putting people at the centre of our work mean in real terms?
In normal times, it might start by offering information to people – through public legal education to answer questions about their rights, about what services are available and how to use them, and what alternatives exist that might serve them better than traditional adversarial court proceedings.
As we look at the measures put in place to respond to COVID-19 and start to think about how the justice system and legal profession will continue to modernize and to evolve, it becomes obvious a human-centric system also requires consideration of other practical issues. We need to take into account such things as the age, income, literacy, and the physical and mental condition of the participants. Everyone has different needs, and the system must provide information and tools that will be accessible to all.
For example, if access to justice requires access to a computer, how will we ensure everyone is equitably served? Most of us have had connectivity issues in the past year, as home networks tried – and sometimes struggled – to rise to the challenge of supporting students and workers in the home office. Will government make the necessary investments to ensure broadband is equally available from sea to sea to sea, from downtown to rural areas?
Self-represented litigants, who often need human help to navigate the system, can be particularly disadvantaged by the closure of courthouses and registry offices, places where they’d normally be able to find information.
During consultations, CBA members told the task force that the implementation of some changes without properly consulting and assisting self-represented litigants resulted in delays, expense and frustration. One suggestion was to appoint a court liaison to help parties understand the changes.
Successful enterprises know they’re losing their edge when customers start taking their business elsewhere. That’s why it is incumbent on those making the changes to include the users in the process.
One of the recommendations in the task force’s report is to collect feedback from the people who use the system to gauge their experience of it, improve that experience where possible, and inform future decisions about how it all should work. That sounds like a good place to start. After all, only a human-centred approach can deliver the results to facilitate the optimal functioning of the Canadian justice system.
CBA President Brad Regehr and Past President Vivene Salmon are co-Chairs of the Canadian Bar Association’s Task Force on Justice Issues Arising from COVID-19. The Task Force will release its report at the CBA’s AGM on February 17.