It’s time to reinvigorate our compassion and demand more
On July 17, 2018, former President Barack Obama gave a speech marking the 100th birthday of Nelson Mandela. It is an hour and 24 minutes long. For those of us habituated to Twitter and soundbites, it is surprisingly hard to fight the urge to fast forward or move on to something else when one person speaks that long – and yet, we will easily binge-watch our favorite Netflix series for much longer without any effort at all. I urge you to give the same time to this important message.
There is lots to digest in Obama’s speech; he talks of the progress of the last century but also the people left behind in that progress, and the systems that have evolved to maintain and even strengthen the gaps between those who have much and those who do not. Yet, his over-riding message was genuinely positive: “I believe that all people ARE created equal, and are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights. And I believe that a world governed by such principles IS possible.” What is needed, he says, is a commitment to “human solidarity.”
When we, in Canada, talk about access to justice, we discuss what we see in front of us: delays, judicial shortages, court services and sheriff understaffing, and other challenges in our courts; the struggles of unrepresented litigants; power imbalances in mental health and immigration/refugee reviews; families and children harmed in the aftermath of breakups; and the devastating multi-generational impact of residential schools that results in criminal over-representation in prisons and child apprehensions. What underlies all of these discussions, however, is a genuine and very deep concern that we have lost our way – that the ideals and values we believe the justice system exists to uphold are no longer being served.
Why wouldn’t we question what’s going on? We have vacancies in the courts, vacancies in the committees that make judicial appointments, and a dire shortage of court staff. We have declining numbers of lawyers able to afford taking on legal aid files, including child apprehension cases against higher-paid government lawyers, and we are losing an entire generation of veteran criminal lawyers who have helped us deliver on the Constitutional right to legal aid for those facing criminal charges. We have Crown lawyers struggling with impossible caseloads. “Minor” compensation disputes with our monopoly government auto insurer are being diverted to a monopoly government out-of-court resolution process. And, we see all this despite a discriminatory 7% charge on all legal clients continuing to line government coffers, in addition to the corporate and individual taxes contributed by 13,500+ BC lawyers.
How do we reclaim our sense of human solidarity? We remember each and every day that many of us have privileges that others do not have, and we use our privilege to ensure that others have their basic human rights both recognized and honoured. We expect – we demand – that our governments use our taxes to fund a justice system that supports ALL people being treated equally and their legal problems dealt with fairly, justly and in a timely way. CBABC advocates on these exact issues relentlessly, but we also need individual lawyers – taxpayers and voters – to speak up to support our message.
The last word goes to Nelson Mandela himself, a tireless and passionate advocate for the recognition of our shared humanity:
“A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dream of.”