Thursday, 10 October 2013

Access to civil justice - two reports that ought to inspire real change

Two recent national reports on the urgent need for civil justice reform offer the promise – or at least the possibility – of a justice reform agenda that, for once, is not just about demanding more tax dollars for legal aid, but recognizes more broadly and more fundamentally that our civil justice systems, structures, processes and rules are not only failing the poor, they’re failing everyone.

Reaching Equal Justice: an Invitation to Envision and Act, was released by the Canadian Bar Association during its annual meeting this past August. ( The other report, Access to Civil & Family Justice: A Roadmap for Change, was released this month by a group called the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters, ( chaired by Justice Thomas Cromwell of the Supreme Court of Canada.  I will call it the Cromwell report in recognition of the leadership role which Justice Cromwell has undertaken on this issue over the past several years.

Both reports are worth reading (and very readable).  My hope, of course, is that they are not just read, but are embraced and acted upon. 

Both reports argue that the justice system, if it is to function effectively, has to “put the public first”.  The Cromwell report even goes so far as to make this the first of its six guiding principles of change, saying,

We need to change our primary focus.  Too often, we focus inward on how the system operates from the point of view of those who work in it….The focus must be on the people who need to use the system…..Those of us working within the system need to remember that it exists to serve the public.

It is of course easier to say this than to make it real.  As the Cromwell report itself acknowledges, this is not just about changing rules and processes, but instead – and more fundamentally – entails a culture shift, a whole new way of thinking and acting.  Lawyers and judges are so accustomed to defending the justice system on a “we know better than you do” basis that it is really quite wonderful to see (in a report written by lawyers) such a clear statement of the need to re-orient our perspective to ask whether the system is actually meeting the needs and expectations of the people it exists to serve.  And this is not just one of the considerations that should be taken into account by reformers, but the first principle.

Each of the Cromwell report’s six guiding principles are just that: ways of orienting our perspective on justice system change that help frame every option or proposal in a way that, if realized, would make change meaningful and effective.  For example, principle two, “collaborate and coordinate,” reflects the reality that one of the single greatest barriers to an accessible justice system is its fragmentation.   A justice system that put the public first would not tolerate the silos that characterize its institutional arrangements and practices, and would look for ways to organize itself so that citizens did not need an undergraduate course in constitutional law in order to understand, when their marriage breaks down, which courts can make spousal support orders and which can grant them a divorce. 

Another important feature of both reports is the call for action.  For example, in a very fine turn of phrase, the CBA report suggests we need to “think systemically, act locally”.  In other words, “Every contact between an individual and the civil justice system is an opportunity for either disempowerment or empowerment, a moment to reinforce inequality and social exclusion or to create equality and inclusion.”  We don't have to sit around and wait for someone else to fix the system for us. Even within the constraints of existing structures and rules, every day at the office presents a dozen opportunities for each of us to make the system work for the public interest, rather than against it. 

The sixth of the Cromwell principles asks for a focus on outcomes.  This has at least two important dimensions.  First is the idea that legal process is not an end in itself, but rather only matters if it produces fair and just results.  The statement that process is instrumental to result, rather than the goal of the system, is more transformational than the report’s authors themselves acknowledge.  Lawyers will usually tell you that the only guarantee of a just result is a just process, but this is nearly always stated as a self-evident truth, rather than an empirical proposition that deserves close scrutiny.  As the Cromwell report says, “Of course fair process is important.  But at the end of the day, what people want most is a safe, healthy and productive life for themselves, their children and their loved ones.”  This is a marvellous thing to find in a justice system reform report written by lawyers, a call to look beyond process to see whether, where, if and how, the justice system actually improves people’s lives.

The focus on outcomes also has a second dimension, the need for more and better metrics to help us see whether the justice system is actually achieving its goals.  Although there is a growing body of meaningful empirical evidence about the justice system, it is still the case that most of the arguments made in its defence are supported only by collections of self-evident truths, input/output measures and anecdotes. (Even an indicator as widely cited as the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law index, cited on page 3 of the Cromwell report, is based on a methodology which, stripped to its essence, is not much more than a highly sophisticated opinion poll.)   

As I said at the beginning, these are important reports, and I have really only begun to scratch the surface of their important insights and recommendations.  I certainly hope that they inspire a commitment to real change.  I can’t, however, close this commentary without making two more points.

First, the call for reform is hardly new.  When the Lord Woolf began his examination of English civil process in the mid-1990’s, he wrote, “the key problems facing civil justice today are cost, delay and complexity.”  In 1996 the CBA’s Systems of Civil Justice Task Force reported, “many Canadians feel that they cannot exercise their rights effectively because using the civil justice system takes too long, is too expensive, or is too difficult to understand.”  Nearly two decades later it’s disheartening to see the authors of the Cromwell report acknowledge, “There is a serious access to justice problem in Canada.  The civil and family justice system is too complex, too slow and too expensive.”

Plus ca change?  Are things worse, or better?  I say this not to deny the problems, but to make it clear that they have been with us for a long time, and yet notwithstanding the best of intentions of a generation of reformers, they are with us still.  These reports may be the catalyst for the real change that is urgently needed, or they may gather dust on the shelves.  I hope for the former, but I fear for the latter.  There are still powerful forces opposed to reform, people who argue that we should confront change rather than embrace it.  Theirs is, I believe, a view backwards, not forwards, but it is a view strongly held by many.

Second, both reports argue that the access to justice crisis is particularly acute for the poor, and that underfunding of legal aid is an issue that urgently needs attention .  There is no doubt that increases in legal aid funding would expand the reach of legal aid.  But I think – as I said at the beginning – that the crisis – and I believe it is a crisis - is more fundamental.  Cost, delay and complexity are problems with the system as a whole.  Solving these problems would benefit everyone.  What needs to happen, if justice system reform is to achieve anything meaningful, is not for governments to spend more to support the system as it is, but rather for all of us – politicians, judges, lawyers, court administrators, community groups, citizens, to answer directly the problems of cost, delay and complexity.  Put another way, what can we do to make our legal systems and processes “just, speedy, and inexpensive?” – to quote the language from the old BC Supreme Court rules.  That’s the question.  These reports don’t provide the detailed answer to that question, but they are, just as their authors have intended, invaluable invitations to envision and act, roadmaps for a way forward to a justice system that actually meets the needs of the citizens it is established to serve.

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