“What does it say? I don’t understand”. Children of immigrants are no stranger to this expression. Especially in circumstances where their parents are scrunching their foreheads to understand legal documents laced with technical complexities. Often, these children are the primary point of contact between their parents and professionals, which ultimately makes them responsible for translating and relaying technical information on behalf of their parents who lack native fluency. It is not uncommon to hear of children as early as six years old reading and translating demand letters, financial statements and court documents for their parents who do not understand the documents before them.
I can confirm from experience that my role at the ripe age of seven was Senior Translator and Legal Advisor – a job thrusted onto me from a place of necessity rather than passion or choice. It is rarely an option for children in asymmetric parental relationships to reject a task assigned by the parents who feed and provide for them. These children experience a looming sense of obligation to their parents, who are otherwise unable to help themselves in matters that require English proficiency. It is inherently debilitating to watch our fathers and mothers, who sound invincible in their mother tongue, grasp their hands tighter on a piece of paper and timidly sound out the legal jargon before them. Like a toddler discovering the word ‘banana’ for the first time. The syllables come out slowly, doubtfully and without true understanding. In those moments, the façade of perfection surrounding our parents disappears and we cannot help but feel like our ‘Mamas’ and ‘Babas’ are no longer the protectors we once perceived them to be. Instead, we are theirs. It only feels right to peel the paper back from their hands and begin the onerous task of researching, summarizing, and communicating the meaning of the document, in a way that is both digestible and morally dignifying.
What does this have to do with professional responsibility you might ask? Well, the answer is simple – Access to Justice should be more than a lack luster one-day workshop at a Big-Law firm that is premised on the broad idea of ensuring connectivity amongst elderly and disadvantaged clients. Often too broad to make a difference, these seminars and efforts have yet to have a meaningful impact on the lives of certain clients who continue to be marginalized by the ‘posh’ inaccessibility and unintelligibility of the legal system.
The Chief Justice of Ontario Advisory Committee on Professionalism identifies the following elements of professionalism: scholarship, integrity, honour, leadership, pride, independence, spirit and enthusiasm, collegiality and civility and service to the public good through client relationships and responsibilities to the administration of justice. Notably, succeeding on every single one of these elements requires an access-to-justice based approach. Specifically, scholarship through intellectual training, requires a conscious effort on behalf of lawyers and law students to not only learn their required knowledge, but communicate it in ways that do not disparage disadvantaged communities through overstimulation and abrasive legalese. Synthesizing information in these spaces requires notions of ‘ego’ and ‘prestige’ to be set aside and replaced with values such as simplicity, inclusivity, and transparency. Put simply, we need to put things more simply.
For the sake of children, such as myself, who spent their childhood undertaking responsibilities that were never theirs to have, access to justice plays a role in fostering healthy relationships between new immigrants and the legal system. Given Canada’s rapid influx of immigration, it becomes increasingly important for lawyers to remain conscious of their positionality and hyperaware of their clients’ respective language barriers and cultural disadvantages. Context is important, and understandably, not all clients require elaborate Supreme Court style memorandums to resolve issues that can be answered in ‘layman’ terms. Complicated language and a lack of procedural safeguards to ensure these communications are understood by the client remains a central issue that requires redress through the simplification of legal transactions.
Without an awareness of the ‘domino effect’ the legal system projects onto disadvantaged families, interactions with the legal system will remain daunting for new immigrants and burdensome for their children. The onus of remedying this inequality should fall on the shoulders of lawyers, who have a responsibility to uphold their commitment to cultural competence and be leaders in their respective communities through their compassion, humanity, and relatability. Lawyers and law students alike should remain vigilant of their role in perpetuating disadvantage, especially with respect to inadvertently or intentionally, using the shield of law as a sword, by overcomplicating an industry that is already unintelligible for many newcomers.
The rules of professional conduct necessarily entail humanity as its central underpinning, but this concept has gotten lost in translation, especially with the rise of corporate capitalism. While the ‘Suits’ dream has created a sense of disillusionment amongst soon-to-be lawyers, it is important to remember that not every legal transaction is a corporate merger. Often, legal transactions pertain to ordinary issues such as house foreclosures, debt collection, consent, and capacity issues, amongst many, which require lawyers to enable their clients to succeed through their understanding. Access to justice can take the shape of workplace diversity to ensure appropriate translators are available, the provision of written briefs that can be translated by client services and even diagrams where necessary. Ideally, these efforts can shift present access-to-justice efforts from dormant to pervasive in every transaction we undertake.
Maya Cheaib is a University of Ottawa Faculty of Law common law graduate with an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Public Law and Urban Policy, and a Master of Arts in Criminology and Sociolegal Studies from the University of Toronto. She is deeply committed to advocacy and social justice and aims to enhance the access to justice landscape during the course of her legal practice.