Re-Envisioning A2J

Moving beyond legal aid and ADR; a conversation with The Honourable Cromwell

Re-Envisioning A2J

The access to justice crisis has generated much attention and condemnation across the nation within the legal profession, judiciary, civil society and governments for many years. Even so, we continue to grapple with meaningful and sustainable remedies. Although much work has been done and many systemic reforms have been recommended and pursued, the crisis is ongoing. The number of self-represented litigants who are unable to meaningfully access the justice system continues to grow.

Access to justice is fundamental to the rule of law and the ability of citizens to enforce their rights and enjoy the benefits and protections of a healthy democracy; this is a well-recognized and accepted principle. However, the question remains: what does meaningful access to justice look like and what will it take to achieve a justice system that works for all?

The 2013 report Access to Civil and Family Justice: A Roadmap for Change, released by the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters and produced under the leadership of former Justice Thomas A. Cromwell, illuminates and frames access to justice challenges and provides a comprehensive approach to meet these challenges.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with The Honourable Cromwell about what meaningful access to justice looks like, whether it is possible to achieve, and how we get there. Below is a summary of his responses.

What does meaningful access to justice look like?

  • Access to justice is more than access, it is about just outcomes. It is a system where individuals are enabled to avoid, manage and resolve conflicts in an efficient, effective, and proportional manner.
  • We are in a situation where many people’s rights are not enforceable because they are unable to access the justice system.
  • It requires a broad approach, where individuals are provided with the necessary institutions, knowledge, resources and services to avoid, manage and resolve legal problems.
  • The litmus test: do individuals have the knowledge to recognize that they have a legal problem, meaningfully access the resources and services they require to resolve their problem, and reach a practical outcome that is fair?
  • A strong civil and family justice system not only benefits individuals, but society at large. The efficient and effective resolution of legal problems also results in collective social, health, and economic benefits.

Is it possible?

We can and we must achieve system-wide meaningful access to justice – it is not optional. The current situation is untenable.

How do we get there?

  • Finding solutions for the access to justice crisis is a shared responsibility. There must be collaboration among the legal profession, judiciary, civil society, governments, economists, social scientists, and health care researchers. The public must also be made aware and be engaged.
  • The key is to start working collaboratively toward meaningful access to justice; toward a broader conception of justice.
  • Canada’s Justice Development Goals provide an excellent roadmap for framing the challenges, and finding solutions and opportunities for collaboration across the country.

Reflecting on The Honourable Cromwell’s comments, it seems to me that a significant part of the challenge is our narrow concept of A2J as a means to provide access to representation by a lawyer and to dispute resolution processes, rather than as an expansive concept that is people-centred, in the service of dispute prevention and focused on just outcomes. It is time to re-envision access to justice and create a justice system that works for all – as former Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said, “The most advanced justice system in the world is a failure if it does not provide justice to the people it is meant to serve.”