I recently read the Canadian Bar Association report Reaching Equal Justice (I ran out of mysteries) and was surprised at the strength of the language. A sampling of the phrases describing justice in Canada today includes, "abysmal state of access to justice" and "huge discrepancies between the promise of justice and the lived reality."
Some of the statistics presented don't flatter this country either. For example, "the World Justice Project found that on civil justice, Canada ranked ninth out of 16 North American and Western European nations and 13th among the world’s high-income countries, just ahead of Estonia," and "For civil legal aid, Canada ranks a shocking 54th in the world, well behind many countries with lower gross domestic products." We even fall behind the U.S., ranked at 50th.
The report claims that the simple answer is that justice in this country has been devalued: "We see justice as a luxury that we can no longer afford, not an integral part of our democracy." Furthermore, it's getting worse: the justice system is "aggregating" inequality rather than mitigating it.
Stating that legal aid is our most important program for equal access to justice, the report pointed out that it has economic as well as legal and moral value. It can "save public money by reducing domestic violence, helping children leave foster care more quickly, reducing evictions and alleviating homelessness, protecting patients health and helping low-income people participate in federal safety-net programs." Apparently, studies in Australia, the U.K and the U.S. have shown a social return on investment of six dollars for every dollar spent on legal aid.
The Bar Association suggests a range of measures to deal with the justice deficit, including improving the legal capabilities of people in school such that law becomes a life skill, promoting legal expense insurance, a national justice care system for lower income Canadians, requiring volunteer service by all lawyers, and teaching law students that "fostering access to justice is an integral part of their professional responsibility." The report sets out an impressive action plan, involving participation by justice professionals, governments and the public, complete with milestones and targets.
Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin shares the Association's concerns, lamenting that, "People just swallow their pain and their loss and live with it, I guess,
in some unsatisfactory way feeling they can't get justice."
The Bar Association states "Our goal is an equal, inclusive justice system everyone can take part
in." A very worthy goal indeed, and one essential to a healthy democracy. Bravo for the Bar.