Lawyers can improve access to justice

Law Society public forum: Clearing the Path to JusticeBy Dana Bales, staff writer

Lawyers have a crucial role to play in improving people’s access to the justice system, according to panellists at a Law Society public forum, Clearing the Path to Justice.

Held on January 28, the forum explored barriers to accessing the justice system and creative solutions to break down those obstacles.

Keynote speaker the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, PC, Chief Justice of Canada, said that, even though Canada’s justice system “ranks with the best,” lawyers, government and the courts need to work together to make it better because “solving the problem will require a multi-pronged attack.”

“The problem,” she said, “can be described as a disconnect between the ideal of the right to justice and the reality — many people are unable to access justice.”

        Forum panellists
  Pictured at the forum, left to right: Timothy McGee,
Judge Sue Talia, Grand Chief Edward John, Gordon Turriff, QC, Lyall Knott, QC, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Mark Forsythe.

Panellist M. Sue Talia also spoke to the audience of 250 people in Vancouver about that disconnect. She is a private family law judge in California, where both sides of a family law case can choose to use a private judge, rather than a publicly appointed one.

“If you go into court and all you know is you might lose your kids, you might lose your home, you might lose your pension rights and you don’t have access to someone who can tell you how to protect that,” said Judge Talia, “then effectively the courts are failing you.”

In California, family courts have seen as many as 80 per cent of the litigants come before them unrepresented by an attorney, which Talia called “unconscionable.”

BC Attorney General Wally Oppal, QC — who took questions from the forum audience and explained important steps the government is taking to improve access — said the panellists’ remarks highlighted the need for everyone in the justice system to work together.

“Lawyers have to come onside and help those people. There are pro bono operations and pro bono lawyers in this province. All of us have to get together and help those people who are unable to help themselves.”

Panellist Lyall Knott, QC, articulated another access issue: specific cultural and language barriers. He is Board Secretary for the immigrant assistance society S.U.C.C.E.S.S., which runs legal clinics in conjunction with the Western Canada Society to Access Justice.

“Immigrants come to this country, and many of them have the same issues and problems as the rest of us, but they lack an understanding of our justice system, so access is denied,” said Knott.

He added that some“come from a culture that distrusts and is suspicious of the legal system,” and they question, “is our legal system there to help or is it there to suppress and punish? What is the role of the lawyer? Is the lawyer on my side or their side?”

Others come from a culture where the rights and freedoms enjoyed by Canadians may be very foreign. Still others “may be reluctant to take certain issues to an outsider.”

“For example,” he said, “some in the Chinese community will not take family issues outside the family, for to do so would be a loss of face — this includes divorce, spousal abuse and child abuse.”

Panellist Grand Chief Edward John of the First Nations Summit talked about the cultural challenges some First Nations people face. He praised the Supreme Court of Canada for case law that has helped to articulate justice for First Nations people. “In our case it’s important, because we’ve seen far too many policies in this country throughout our history that undermine the interest of our people.”

“So we have to go to the UN or we have to go to our courts.”

Law Society President, Gordon Turriff, QC, told the forum audience access to justice is an important priority for Benchers. “We are taking many steps to try to help clear the path to justice.” For example, the Law Society helps to fund Pro Bono Law of BC, which connects people who need free legal services with lawyers who can assist them.

Turriff also praised the “hundreds of lawyers who, every day, elevate the profession by donating their time to help people who have legal problems, but who don’t have the means to pay for the help they need.”

Moderated by CBC Radio’s Mark Forsythe, Clearing the Path to Justice was put on in partnership with CBC, the Georgia Straight, the Legal Services Society, the Western Canada Society to Access Justice and S.U.C.C.E.S.S.