This article was originally published by The Lawyer’s Daily (thelawyersdaily.ca), part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.
Despite the watershed (and much-needed) change foisted on the justice sector as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian Bar Association, B.C. Branch (CBABC) says much more needs to be done to improve access to the system. It has now set out a plan of action for the province to achieve that goal.
The CBABC’s Agenda for Justice 2021 offers more than 40 recommendations in 22 key areas and essentially runs the gamut of the entire justice system, from legal aid to court modernization to contracts. It calls for the government to address financial eligibility for legal aid; expand the scope of representation in family law on issues of divorce, guardianship and parenting arrangements; develop a Unified Family Court system; and focus on restorative justice for Indigenous peoples. It also says the province should address the flaws in rural access to justice exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and improve efficiency by streamlining scheduling systems, staffing and technology.
CBABC president Jennifer Brun said the agenda is “really a product of the thought leadership from across the association taking a look at the decades-long underfunding and understaffing that has led to the delays we are seeing in the administration of justice.”
“These issues were always apparent, but a year into the COVID-19 pandemic they have become impossible to ignore,” she said. “What this document does is put it all in one neat and tidy place and say this is how we should go from here, and I think that is probably the strongest message that all British Columbians face everyday legal problems and this is a way to make access to justice more realistic.”
Access to justice means different things to different people, said Brun.
“I think very narrowly defined access to justice could mean the formal ability to appear in court for example, but more broadly defined it really engages breaking down the systemic barriers and unconscious biases faced by different populations in society,” she said. “And I think this truly is a roadmap to action which offers a series of recommendations and reforms to improve B.C.’s justice system and modernize provincial legislation for the benefit of all British Columbians.”
Jamie Maclaren, founding executive director of Access Pro Bono, said the agenda was “pretty comprehensive and ambitious” and is an encouragement to government and courts to look at reforming the system.
“Family law continues to be by far the biggest area of unmet legal need, and I think most institutions and lawyers in B.C. would agree with that,” said Maclaren, who also serves as a bencher with Law Society of British Columbia (LSBC). “And I applaud the CBABC for acknowledging the plight of Indigenous peoples and providing some suggestions for how to address that — I think that is really important and is something which is more prevalent as an identified area of need in recent years that wasn’t always seen as a big priority.”
Maclaren, who authored a report in 2019 advocating a revamp of legal aid in B.C., said he worried that emergence from the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to austerity measures that would preclude substantial investment in the justice sector.
“But I have been impressed by the thought and the first levels of investment of change in the system [by the province’s current NDP government],” he said. “It seems to me that the judiciary and government are more aligned in the desire to improve the systems and likewise the relationship between legal aid lawyers and the government has gotten better. I think they need to continue that — the investment is not where it could and should be, but it is a good start.”
A spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of the Attorney General said the government will “take time to carefully review and consider the suggestions in this report to see what further steps we can take to modernize and improve access to justice for all British Columbians.”
“Over the last year, the courts and government made significant — and much needed — changes as a result of COVID-19, from adjusting courtrooms for physical distancing to introducing new technologies to allow for virtual filings and hearings so people have more options to resolve their issues,” the spokesperson said. “We remain committed to our digital transformation strategy and will continue to work with the courts to modernize and maintain access to justice throughout the pandemic and beyond, but we know that there’s more work to do.”
Brun said the CBABC has sent the agenda to a number of provincial politicians and said she hopes to meet with them throughout the spring to discuss it. Click here for more information.