Has our justice system priced itself beyond the reach of average citizens? by Shirley Dolan

Shirley Dolan
Shirley Dolan

This was the title of the November 23, 2014 episode of Cross Country Checkup with host Rex Murphy. Landowners have long complained about the state of justice in Ontario and, indeed, across the country. We are familiar with the process whereby a person is charged with an offence and asked to pay an exorbitant fine or defend themselves in court. Of the few brave souls who decide to go to court, it is a long and arduous journey, and the system is designed to make the appellant plead guilty perhaps to a lesser fine, or face the consequence of months, possibly years, of legal wrangling, during which pocket books and health suffer. From the response to the Cross Country Checkup program, it would seem that there are many others out there who agree that are justice system needs a lot of improvement.

Prompted by Rex Murphy’s show, I decided to have a look at our justice system through the eyes of the internet. Here is some interesting information I came across.

  • According to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, Canada’s civil justice system ranked 8th out of 24 Western European and North American counties. One of the main factors that brought down our score was accessibility and affordability of the justice system.
  • In Fall 2013, the Canadian Bar Association Access to Justice Committee released a report on access to justice in Canada which contained strategies to improve access to the justice system by average citizens. Unfortunately, most of the targets are “by 2020” or beyond.  But at least there is an acknowledgement that the system needs to be fixed. http://www.cba.org/cba/equaljustice/secure_pdf/Equal-Justice-Report-eng.pdf
  • “There is no Justice without access to justice.” So says Chief Justice Beverley McLaughlin. She shares this message frequently when asked to speak at various events such as the Access to Civil Justice for Middle Class Canadians Colloquim, hosted by the Facilty of Law in February 2011. Her speech can be viewed at https://www.law.utoronto.ca/news/there-no-justice-without-access-justice-chief-justice-beverley-mclachlin
  • The Cross Country Checkup episode introduced me to a new acronym: SRLs or Self-Represented Litigants. One of the guests on the programs was Julie Mcfarlane, professor of law at the University of Windsor. She is the author of The National Self-­Represented Litigants Project: Identifying and Meeting the Needs of Self-­Represented Litigants, May 2013. This project looked at the characteristics of SRLs in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario. Under motivations for self-representation, the report says “By far, the most consistently cited reason for self-representation was the inability to afford to retain, or continue to retain, legal counsel”. While most of the cases studied were in family court, the report is illustrative of the issues experienced by many landowners in lower courts and tribunals. You can read the report at http://www.lsuc.on.ca/uploadedFiles/For_the_Public/About_the_Law_Society/Convocation_Decisions/2014/Self-represented_project.pdf.
  • A Globe and Mail article http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/ontario-courts-only-open-to-the-rich-judge-warns/article12942343/ tells a story of an Ontario Superior court judge who used a ruling to air his opinion on the Province’s courts are increasingly only open to the rich. Justice D.M. Brown is quoted as saying that “such a state of affairs reflects an unacceptable failure on the part of our civil justice system”.

The above brief internet search demonstrates that there is considerable awareness in the legal system that there is a genuine problem with accessibility to the courts by average citizens. When and how do we fix it?

This article was first published in December 2014.

It appears the situation has not changed and that accessibility to the courts by average citizens is still a fundamental problem. http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thesundayedition/the-sunday-edition-march-25-2018-1.4589621/more-canadians-are-acting-as-their-own-lawyer-because-they-don-t-have-a-choice-1.4589633